Hugh Farrelly Aviva Rugby Blogger

TIME TO LUKE THE PART – Fitzgerald’s big chance

Hugh Farrelly
Aviva Rugby Writer
27 Aug 2015

IT is remarkable to think that, almost nine years on from his Ireland breakthrough, Luke Fitzgerald is still a World Cup rookie.

He is broadly regarded as one of the outstanding talents of his generation, yet Fitzgerald was still deemed surplus to requirements for France 2007 and New Zealand four years later.

Injuries and ill-timed dips in form did not help his cause but, such is Fitzgerald's talent, he would have been an asset at both tournaments, especially as lack of spark contributed to Ireland's premature departure on both occasions.

Fitzgerald, still only 27, knows there is nothing to be gained from dwelling on the disappointments of the past and will be equally aware that he now has a wonderful opportunity to fill in the glaring gap on his CV.

Ireland coach Joe Schmidt has always been a noted admirer of Fitzgerald's talents and has consistently backed him, dating back to their time together at Leinster.

In his selection for Saturday's World Cup warm-up clash at the Aviva against Wales, Schmidt has made a powerful statement by including Fitzgerald at 13, outside his first-choice 12, Robbie Henshaw, and frontline half-back pairing of Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray.

Not only does it suggest Fitzgerald is firmly in Schmidt's World Cup plans ahead of the 31-man squad announcement, it also creates the possibility of an exhilarating midfield adjustment, one that would provide Ireland with an extra attacking bite essential to their stated quest of reaching the semi-finals for the first time.

Earlier this year, in the run-up to the Six Nations, we wrote optimistically here about the prospect of a Fitzgerald-Henshaw midfield axis - a fluid, versatile combination that evoked memories of Michael Kiernan and Brendan Mullin in the 1980s and, of course, Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy in their mid-2000s pomp.

As it turned out, Schmidt opted for Jared Payne in the outside channel and Ulster's adopted Kiwi was commendably solid as Ireland retained their Six Nations crown, with Fitzgerald having to make do with a call-up to the left wing for the final outing against Scotland.

He performed well that day but was less impressive two weeks ago in the same role in Ireland's most recent warm-up game, also against the Scots. After that match, there was no guarantee Fitzgerald would make the chosen 31 but the selection for Saturday is a clear indicator that the Ireland management want the 2009 Test Lion  to nail down his World Cup place.

Ireland under Schmidt have sensibly cut their cloth in pragmatic pursuit of progression but the New Zealander knows reliance on a kick-centric attacking approach will not be enough to take them where they want to go in the next two months.

Fitzgerald, at his best, gives them edge - his speed off the mark, stepping ability and footballing skills could be the difference in tight, knock-out encounters.

Whether it will be enough to secure a starting place remains to be seen - there is huge regard for Payne's worth to the team - but having Fitzgerald on board gives Schmidt options.

It is an exciting selection all-round with Keith Earls afforded another chance to emphasise his stunning return to fitness and form, this time in the No11 jersey after excelling at centre in the opening warm-up win over Wales.

On the other wing, Dave Kearney's inclusion following an eye-catching cameo against the Scots can propel him into the final squad. The younger Kearney is very much a Schmidt-type player - diligent, adaptable and, although he may be seen as lacking some of Simon Zebo's unpredictable twinkle, highly proficient in all areas of back three play.

Strong showings by the wings this Saturday would put extra heat on Zebo, together with the Ulster pair of Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble, whose late career revival has been compromised by injury since being named 2014 Player Of The Year.

It could also spell bad news for Schmidt favourite Felix Jones as there are a clutch of three-quarters, led by Payne, capable of covering for first-choice full-back Rob Kearney should the need arise.

Up front, Nathan White has timed his late run after injury to perfection and has been honoured by being the first player other than Mike Ross to be picked at tighthead since Schmidt took over in 2013.

With Marty Moore battling injury, Tadgh Furlong is an interesting pick on the bench. The word from within Leinster is that the Wexford man is the natural successor to Ross down the track, with a physique built for locking scrums, and if Furlong can get an extended run in his first cap and step up to the mark, it may remove the need to include Michael Bent (lining out for Leinster at No3 against Moseley) purely on the basis that he covers both sides of the scrum.

Bent has reinvigorated his career impressively but doubts remain over his capacity to secure a scrum, particularly at tighthead, at the highest level and that is such a vital area it is worth including six specialist props, with fingers crossed that Cian Healy recovers in time to make it.

In the second row, the ever-impressive Iain Henderson is assured of a place in the squad - not least for his ability to play in the back-row - but will be pushing hard to leapfrog Devin Toner as partner for captain Paul O'Connell.

Jordi Murphy starts at openside and though he is not expected to gain inclusion in the first team over Sean O'Brien when the real business starts, he can make sure of his squad berth and place in the World Cup match-day 23 with an effective outing in the role best suited to his physique and skills at international level.

All in all, it is an exciting, intriguing selection by Schmidt and, while there are no trophies at stake for these warm-up games, Ireland's torturous World Cup history proves how significant they can be towards the bigger picture.

Fitzgerald may have Grand Slam, Six Nations, Heineken Cup and Pro12 titles to his name, as well as that Lions tour to South Africa, but Saturday's friendly at the Aviva represents one of the biggest matches of his career.

This is his chance to undo history and set about banishing all his World Cup demons and, after 28 years of World Cup disappointment, Ireland's need for such an exorcism is just as acute.

Backs (13)
Full back: Rob Kearney
Three-quarters: Robbie Henshaw, Luke Fitzgerald, Jared Payne, Keith Earls, Dave Kearney, Tommy Bowe.
Out-halves: Johnny Sexton, Ian Madigan, Paddy Jackson.
Scrum-halves: Conor Murray, Eoin Reddan, Isaac Boss.
Forwards (18)
Props: Cian Healy, Jack McGrath, Dave Kilcoyne, Mike Ross, Nathan White, Tadgh Furlong.
Hookers: Rory Best, Sean Cronin, Richardt Strauss.
Second rows: Paul O'Connell (capt), Devin Toner, Iain Henderson, Donnacha Ryan.
Back rows: Peter O'Mahony, Sean O'Brien, Jamie Heaslip, Jordi Murphy, Chris Henry.


By Hugh Farrelly, Irish Daily Mail rugby columnist

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