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Rugby World Cup: Forwards coach Justin Fitzpatrick is a perfect fit for USA

By Jonathan Bradley

Just five short years after being forced to retire from rugby through injury, Justin Fitzpatrick - a European Cup winner with Ulster in 1999 - already finds himself back on the game's biggest stage.

The former prop, who represented Ireland on 26 occasions including four outings at the 1999 World Cup, is today preparing to take on the might of South Africa in his role as USA forwards coach and he cites a pair of past Ulster leaders as driving forces behind his rapid ascent up the ladder.

"I was very lucky through my playing career to work under some top quality coaches," said the 41-year-old.

"Harry Williams brought me over from London to Ulster. He was a great mentor and really helped me transition from playing into coaching.

"I've so much time and respect for what he achieved as a coach.

"Mark McCall is someone I played with at London Irish and Ulster and then was coached by at Ulster. He was very helpful when I started and is still very helpful today.

"I was over after our tour of Europe in November to shadow Saracens a bit and you can see why he's been very successful.

"There have been others along the way but those two have been very positive."

Having started in the Ulster club scene, Fitzpatrick's first position in the States came with Seattle Saracens in 2013 but his coaching journey began many years before that.

"It's one of those things I've always been drawn to," he revealed. "I've always done little bits and pieces going right back to my playing days and I was encouraged by different coaches in Ulster to get out there and try things.

"It helps to round you off as a player to see how different skills and tactics are imparted; I found that very useful as a player.

"As I was getting older, I did more and more to try and upskill and I coached Bangor and then Dungannon when I retired. It's something that always interested me and I had a talent for. I'm pleased and proud to be doing it at the biggest stage.

"It's a very positive step; I'm only five seasons out of playing so I'm still a young coach. I'm very pleased to be here and with the progress I've made so far."

Fitzpatrick sees that progress mirrored in his team, even if they have not been rewarded with a result against either Samoa or Scotland in Pool B.

Taking on the Springboks at the Olympic Stadium this afternoon, ahead of a meeting with Japan on Sunday, he is hoping that the growing momentum behind rugby in his adopted home can continue.

"It's all been very positive," he stated. "It's on an upward swing and we certainly feel more competitive than we have been in previous years.

"It's a tough pool, they're all tough pools, but we were the lowest ranked coming in.

"I think we had our moments but haven't been consistent enough to quite upset anyone thus far. We'll keep plugging away.

"We'll approach it the same way we do every other game, just go through the processes.

"We have a lot of time and respect for the Springboks. We just have to prepare to perform as best we can.

"The game has grown exponentially and it's the fastest growing sport in America over the last four of five years. We did the triple over Canada, we beat Japan in the Pacific Nations Cup so there are a lot of good things happening."

An Irish international who had a spell with Castres in French rugby, Fitzpatrick is well versed to discuss Sunday's big Ireland-France game at the Millennium Stadium which will decide which of the quarter-finalists tops Pool D.

He is confident that Joe Schmidt's side will come out on top.

"Some of the senior players said it post-match, Ireland will be pleased on one hand to have got past a very determined Italian challenge but they'll understand they need to perform better against France," he said.

"I've no doubt that they will and I back us 100 per cent to top the pool. It's not going to be an easy route but I think we've just got a bit too much class and are playing with a lot of confidence. It'll be a close game, but my prediction is Ireland to edge it."

Having featured from the bench in the disastrous 1999 exit to Argentina in Lens, Fitzpatrick knows the dangers posed by the Pumas and has warned that merely avoiding New Zealand in the last-eight does not guarantee a first ever appearance in the semis.

"Argentina are coming to the fore and they'll do well," he added. "They can't be written off and it speaks volumes of how World Rugby are growing the game globally.

"This has been a fantastic World Cup with fans seeing some of the traditional hegemony being broken up a bit and there's no such thing as an easy passage."

Belfast Telegraph


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