Fitzgerald in outstanding form with Six Nations fast approaching

AMONG THE POSITIVES for Leinster in yesterday’s ultimately disappointing 20-20 draw against Wasps at the Ricoh Arena was the latest in a string of impressive displays from Luke Fitzgerald.

The 27-year-old has pieced together six excellent performances at outside centre for Leinster over the last two months and with the Six Nations fast approaching it could be argued that his form has earned him Ireland’s 13 shirt.

Robbie Henshaw got a taste of playing international rugby at 12 last November, and a pairing of Connacht’s dynamic 21-year-old with Fitzgerald would certainly excite for the tournament opener against Italy on 7 February.

Recent Leinster wins over Castres and Ulster had seen Fitzgerald shine with ball in hand, but it was the defensive side of the game where he thrived in Coventry yesterday.

Each of his seven tackles were impactful, but the statistic doesn’t tell the story of some excellent reads to shut down passing options for Wasps, nor the marshalling of teammates around him as Matt O’Connor’s side looked to hold the English team at bay.

Fitzgerald was understandably pleased with that aspect of his game, but overall it was a bittersweet afternoon of rugby. Leinster advanced into the quarter-finals of the Champions Cup, but their second-half collapse meant they missed out on guaranteeing a home draw.

Fitzgerald admitted there was disappointment with the nature of the draw, although there was also pleasure at qualifying as Pool 2 winners.

Fitzgerald was named man of the match against Wasps. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“At the end of the day, that’s the target when you start out, albeit the goal at the start of the week was definitely to get a win over here and get that home quarter final,” said Fitzgerald post-match at the Ricoh Arena.

“I think the changing room kind of told the story in itself, in that everyone was disappointed with the second-half performance.

“I thought we let them control the game, albeit with that 10-minute period with 14 men [with Kane Douglas in the sin bin] when it was always going to be tough. But I didn’t think we dealt with the rest of the half well. So some disappointing parts, but at least we got away with the qualification.”

Head coach Matt O’Connor rejected the notion that Leinster had lost composure in the second half, but Fitzgerald conceded that much had gone awry as Leinster lost a 20-6 lead and failed to score any points in the second half.

“With them, they’ve got good half-backs and a lot of dangerous ball carriers, so I think when we allowed them to have that much possession and I thought we got off the line quite poor in defence and let them dictate momentum and possession of the game.

“They did those things well, and I thought we probably didn’t defend great in that period either. It was a disappointing second half, there’s no doubt, but I thought we hung on in there and did enough to qualify.”

Fitzgerald has staked his claim ahead of the Six Nations. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

More encouragingly for Leinster, their first-half showing was superb, as the backline prospered from excellent set-piece possession provided by Devin Toner and the forward pack.

There was fluency and purpose in Leinster’s attacking play, and although they left further scoring chances out on the pitch, O’Connor’s side demonstrated that they remain a potent force.

Fitzgerald was unsurprised.

I think he [O’Connor] is a very creative guy and I think that showed out there. We stressed them an awful lot and broke them a couple of times off first phase, and in-phase I thought we looked very dangerous.

“All the things that we practised during the week, I thought we executed them quite well in the first half. No surprise to me or anyone who’s dealt with the coach that those things proved very difficult for them to defend.

“I thought we did those things well in the first half and we couldn’t impose ourselves without possession in the second half.”

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