He Is Not Fonz, And This Is Not Happy Days

The Mole may have mentioned before that he’s a big fan of Off The Ball, and especially their rugby coverage. Last night saw Denis Hickie and Matt ‘Mattie’ Williams give their opinion on the stalling – breakdown? – of Luke Fitzgerald’s contract talks with the IRFU.Very few people like talking about the amount of money they earn [and those that do are generally hard work] so The Mole has some sympathy for Fitzgerald that this has gone public, and in that respect echoes Hickie and Williams’ viewpoints on the matter.

However, there are definitely two sides to every story, and while it’s always tempting to come down blindly on the side of the player [be it against a coach, a manager or a faceless institutional behemoth like the IRFU] – after all, the players are the ones who get the results on the pitch, who actually go out and play the game that you’re watching and enjoying – it’s worthwhile trying to see the other side’s point of view.

The IRFU is operating in a difficult commercial climate, just like any other business in Ireland. It has to try and cut costs where it can, because they have an enormous shiny new stadium that they have to pay off and companies are throwing around sponsorship money less freely than they did in the past. The ticket pricing policy that their repayments would initially have been based on was an absolute disaster, and while the provinces have contributed their end with some big pay-days from European competitions, the national team hasn’t exactly been pulling its weight as a money-earner on the pitch, with disappointing performances in three straight Six Nations championships.

Fitzgerald back in 2009 as a 21-year old Lion. He has seen some tough times since then, with several notable injuries, missed tournaments and a severe slump in form. For a guy who had a super-smooth ascension to the professional ranks and was always marked out as a future superstar, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune have come as a huge surprise, and while he hasn't made too many big errors of judgment, he's made a few small ones.

This isn’t 2009, and Luke Fitz isn’t the golden child of Irish rugby anymore. He had a horrendous injury early in November 2009 and missed the guts of eight months of rugby. He had another bad injury in November 2010 and missed another two months, then proceeded to play like a drain for the rest of the season; he missed selection for the World Cup, but was playing well this season until he picked up another injury, and missed another two months, including the entire Six Nations campaign.

So, since the 2009 Six Nations, Fitzgerald has missed two out of three championships due to injury, and played poorly in the one in which he was fit. Two years after starting for the Lions in a vital test match, he didn’t make the Irish World Cup squad – and there were few enough murmurs about it. A harsh take would label him injury-prone and inconsistent.

Team-mates In Not-Not Land?

Tomás O’Leary has already signed up for London Irish, and there’s strong speculation that Fitzgerald will be joining him there. However, there are clear differences between O’Leary’s situation and Fitzgerald’s situation. O’Leary plays a specialist position [and The Mole could do with less of this talk that he can play anywhere along the backline because he played winger for a while six years ago] and has fallen firmly behind Conor Murray, a player about five and a half years younger than him, both at province and at international level. He isn’t getting any quality gametime at Munster. He has started fewer games for Munster this season than Jamie Hagan has for Leinster, incidentally, and hasn’t made a single start in the Heineken Cup this season. His career has stalled in a huge way.

In contrast, Luke Fitz is first choice in Leinster, and has a wider array of positions open to him; this season alone he has started games at left wing, inside centre and fullback. Both Schmidt and Kidney allowed him to pursue his first choice position of fullback in 2009-10 [Kidney picked him at No15 against Samoa in 2010 when he was trying out fullbacks, with Rob Kearney and Geordan Murphy also getting their chance in that series of games] and to be honest, he didn’t really deliver for either of them. Schmidt showed faith in him and kept on picking him on the left wing through some genuinely miserable form, even though he was butchering chances and leaking tries.

Hmmm – the unicorn jizz jersey means that it's the 2010-11 season, which hints that Fitzgerald is most likely going to do drop the ball within a few frames ...

Besides that, for a guy who pressed his claims for the No15 jersey pretty hard, The Mole doesn’t think that he has a particularly rounded skill-set. True, he’s generally a good one-on-one tackler [although he was better pre-injury] but his kicking from hand is no better than ordinary for a back three player, he can’t place-kick, he’s never scored a drop-goal at professional level – compare that to RK’s big drop-goal against Munster earlier this season, or the steepler from just inside halfway that hit the post halfway up against England – and he’s not particularly assured under the high ball. Mistakes made on the wing in defense can be very damaging, because you’re usually isolated and a long way from help. You can be the last man back and cost your team huge territory, or you can be the widest man out and cost them possession. At the moment, Fitzgerald is still making too many mistakes.

Fitz could well end up as a centre, but his passing still leaves a lot to be desired. He has been a professional for six years at this stage, and there’s been nothing more than incremental improvement in it. Now, he’s a hell of a broken field runner, and as I’m sure most people have noticed, the vast majority of his best breaks since his return have come up the middle of the park rather than the flanks. The Mole thinks he has lost a bit of top-end speed since his knee-surgery, and that centre might well be a better fit for him rather than winger. Think of it: a Fitzgerald-Earls combo in the middle of the pitch would be worth a look on the tour to New Zealand, even if Fergus McFadden is a more deserving candidate.

Special Agent In Charge

Fintan Drury is regarded as a canny operator and a hard charger, but Fitzgerald would be mad to take his brinksmanship all the way. A central contract offer from the IRFU is tantamount to selection – just ask Donncha – and turning one down is the next best thing to asking not to be considered for selection.

It’s a matter of record that Fintan Drury is Fitzgerald’s agent, and [with apologies to Frankie] he’s probably the most renowned rugby agent operating in the country.

However, he doesn’t seem to be doing a particularly good job for his client. Moving to London Irish would be career suicide: it’s moving from the best team in Europe [where you’re a bolted-on starter] under one of the best backline coaches in the world, to a mid-table Premiership club who rarely trouble any trophies and play a stodgy brand of rugby … and who’ve just hired a heavily discredited attack coach in former English operator Brian Smith.

And why? To get a better baseline salary? Brilliant. Turning down a central contract [albeit a reduced one] to play for an average Premiership club is tantamount to saying that you don’t want to be considered for international duty. This isn’t Niall Morris heading off to Leicester [long the best club in England] because he can’t get gametime at Leinster and wants to improve himself. Fitzgerald could be a great asset to the Irish team if he finds his best form, but he has absolutely no leverage at the moment. Ireland aren’t all that stuck for wingers: Bowe, Trimble and Earls have been belting in the tries in his absence, and Simon Zebo, Dave Kearney, Craig Gilroy, Tiernan O’Halloran and Andrew Conway are all bubbling under nicely. His spell at fullback for Ireland saw performances range from the average to the very poor, and while centre might wind up as his best position, he has yet to make a real mark there.

The Mole’s advice? Go to the IRFU. Ask them to put the contract back on the table. Sign on the line that is dotted. Forget about money [because it’s enough] and concentrate on rugby.

17 thoughts on “He Is Not Fonz, And This Is Not Happy Days

  1. I’d have more sympathy for the Union’s financial position if they hadn’t just given one of these yokes to Denis Leamy…

  2. The IRFU could have saved a few quid by not giving Leamy and Paddy Wallace new central contracts earlier this year. I wouldn’t blame Luke for heading abroad.

  3. Okay, I can’t take it anymore! What’s the quote from “He Is Not Fonz, And This Is Not Happy Days”? I’ve been wracking my brains but it won’t come to me.

    Is Luke Fitz really still a bolted on starter for Leinster? Has Kearney Jr not usurped him on the wing? Who will start in the HCup quarter final?

  4. Giving a contract to Denis Leamy was an absolutely ridiculous move. The guy hasn’t been a first choice player for the country since 6N08, a full four years ago, and there’s no shortage of backrows in the country.

    But Fitzgerald turning down a central contract and moving away to play for an ordinary club in an ordinary league [when he’s playing regularly for the best club in Europe] would almost certainly be a terrible decision for his career.

  5. luke is a professional player and has aduty to himself and familyto maximise his career earning regsrdless of who sign the cheque. rugby players no longer have doctors surgeries and law forms to go back to.

    • As far as I know, Fitzgerald has no dependents … so the duty to his family is pretty much null and void. I doubt Dessie Fitz is looking for pocket money!

      Secondly, it seems to me that it’d be a fine example of short-termism to think that the initial financial benefits that come from playing for London Irish [as they were mentioned on Off The Ball last night, we’ll use them as an example] would weigh up well against the opportunity cost of NOT playing for Ireland.

      Of course, if there are other teams from different leagues and more money on offer, circumstances change a bit … but still not that much.

  6. I’d love to know what Fitzgerald might be offered by London Irish. It would want to be a hell of a lot more than the IRFU are offering. I’m sure Fitzgerald is intent on signing on the dotted line as you suggest and the impasse is purely an effort to get as much out of the deal as possible. He knows that moving to England would ruin his international career, and while he was dropped from the squad for the World Cup, so was Tomas O’Leary, and he proved that once you’re one of Kidney’s men it doesn’t take that much to get back into the team.

    • It seems unlikely that he’s going to move, he bought a new house in Clonskeagh within the last 6 months. There’s too many factors in favour of staying here.

  7. One factor that hasn’t been mentioned is the tax break for players who spend their entire careers in Ireland. If he was to take an extra 80k per year at London Irish or an ambitious (read: not the top few) French club and give that up it must mean that he really isn’t backing himself to return to regular rugby with Ireland. To be honest, I don’t really know what Fitz is: not quite quick enough for the wing, not quite big enough for inside centre, hands not good enough for outside centre, too flaky for fullback… we all know he has talent but where exactly should he be deployed?

    • Ah, but the requirement is only that they finish their careers here. Otherwise, Stringer’s little sojourn over the channel would have cost him the guts of half a million…

  8. Couple of things, Irish don’t play a particularly stodgy brand of rugby, they generally play with a lot of width, it is just their half-backs are gash so they get nothing going (kind of like France in this 6N, the ability is there on the counter, but not when play is organised.

    Secondly, they couldn’t afford him and they are already loaded with 3/4s so that is likely agent bullshit.

  9. I think the suggestion that O’Leary can play elsewhere in the backline is less based on him playing wing 6 years ago, than it is on watching him trying to play scrumhalf for the past 3 years since the injury that caused him to miss the Lions tour.

  10. The thing is, as a fan you want him to stay in Ireland but Luke is probably far more aware than anyone of how much threat his place at Leinster is under. Everyone knows he’s talented but is he talented enough in any one position to firmly make it his own and become a Lion again? If he isn’t, and he sees new wingers like Conway coming through, he might well feel he’s better off leaving now while he’s still a provincial starter than in two years when he’s a utility back, assuming more complete but less versatile players come through.

    You point out Ireland doesn’t need him as a winger, and he isn’t good enough as fullback, so you hope he can become a centre. What is Luke agrees you wrt to being a no longer necessarily being a back three player for Ireland but also knows he’s not good enough to be a centre?

    Luke could well realise he’s at his most marketable now and will only lose value as more Academy players come through. Following his injuries he might also realise that professional sport is a dangerous career and you need to maximise it financially every time you sign a contract, he can’t bank on still being able to play in two years when the next deal comes up, and worse again, bank on being a more valuable asset in two years.

    Eitherway, I hope he can get back to his best.

  11. There are few enough complaints about Eoin O’Malley’s progress at Leinster, a guy who is less than a year younger than Fitzgerald, yet he seems less of his starting place and less likely to get into an Ireland team. Lukie shouldn’t be cast out because the explosive start to his professional career has petered out because of injury. He’s got nearly 100 Leinster caps, nearly 25 Ireland ones, and last I checked he’s the only left footed winger at Leinster – Little Dave is replacing the unfortunate Shaggy on the right, not Luke on the left. And before the neck injury he was one of Leinster’s form players this year. True he’s yet to focus his talent to its maximum capacity, but for the time being look at his second half try against Bath in the Aviva this year and tell me he’s not quick enough. He should stay, and the IRFU should want to keep him at Leinster. Horgan is gone, and D’Arcy, Nacewa and Drico will follow sooner rather than later. There’s plenty of room for him to establish himself again, and he’s got plenty of talent to do so.

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