Fitzgerald Fightback

27 December 2019; Conor Fitzgerald of Connacht during the Guinness PRO14 Round 9 match between Ulster and Connacht at the Kingspan Stadium in Belfast. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

By Richard Hartmann

IT’S been an eventful year for Conor Fitzgerald, mirroring the ups and downs of his career so far.

The 2020/2021 season has been full of highs and lows for Connacht’s young fly half from the shock of learning he had Covid-19 on Christmas Eve to playing a pivotal role in the late Rainbow Cup victory over Ulster at the end of last month.

“I woke up on Christmas Eve and I had a message on my phone from our Covid-19 officer. It said to give them a bell when I woke up and I thought to myself, ‘oh this is horrific’,” says Fitzgerald.

“I was thinking this must be a mistake because I felt fine. But, no, he confirmed I had Covid-19 so I had to spend Christmas on my own in Galway for two weeks.

“I had flu-like symptoms for two or three days, but our physio and S&C guys are great. They brought me back slowly. I had to train on my own for a couple of weeks but thankfully I had no lasting effects.”

After the Covid-19 layoff, Fitzgerald resumed his battle with Jack Carty for the number 10 shirt and played a vital role as a substitute in the dramatic last-gasp victory over Ulster in Belfast.

With Connacht trailing by five points in injury time, he dis- played nerves of steel. He kicked a penalty to the corner before he bravely chipped the ball through the Ulster defence for Peter Sullivan to touch down in the corner.

“First we got the penalty and there were a couple of their players trying to get in my head and saying: ‘oh he’s going to kick it dead. He’s going to kick it dead’, and then I nailed the five-metre line which was a big thing mentally for the forwards,” he says.

“The second I hit that kick, I said to myself, ‘we’re not losing this game’. Nobody realised we had the advantage when I kicked that through for Peter, so it wasn’t as risky as people thought.

“Even my parents were saying, ‘why did you kick that, it was so high-risk?’ but I heard the referee Andy Grace saying ‘advantage’. The fans watching at home didn’t know.”

Fitzgerald has travelled a winding road to the Connacht senior squad, encountering several roadblocks along the way.

“It’s mad how my journey started. I was in Fourth Year in school when I started playing with the Limerick minor hurlers U-17, I was a year ahead of my age. We won Munster that year but lost the All-Ireland final to Kilkenny,” he says.

“I made the Munster U-18’s, and the Limerick minors that year so I had to pick, and I picked the minors, but after losing the All-Ireland I decided to go back to the rugby. I don’t know why I changed my mind because my dad won a minor All-Ireland with Limerick, so he wanted me to play hurling, but in Fifth Year, I went back to rugby and haven’t looked back.”

Fitzgerald then had to come to terms with being cast aside by his native province Munster. Following his release from the Munster Academy near the end of the 2017/2018 season he had to decide between his rugby career and concentrating on his studies.

“It was a shock. The Saturday I played with Shannon RFC we won the Division 1B league to get promoted,” he says.

“I had a meeting on the Monday to say I was let go. I went from a massive high to a massive low in such a short time from making history with Shannon on Saturday to being told my professional career was over on Monday.

“On Wednesday I got the call from Eric Elwood to meet with him and Mossie Lawlor and they offered me the chance to come to Galway. My parents encouraged me to grasp the opportunity and by Friday it was decided I was moving to Galway.”

Fitzgerald was reacquainted with an old Munster teammate, Simon Zebo, when Connacht played Racing 92 in Paris before Christmas. He laughs when asked if it’s true Zebo used to call him ‘Young ROG’.

“I was just out of school when I was invited to do the full pre season with Munster, and he just nicknamed me ‘Young Rog’ from the off. It was mad then when we played Racing and he was still calling me ROG,” he says.

Fitzgerald’s short-term goals include winning trophies with Connacht and making the number 10 jersey his own. And he believes head coach Andy Friend is the man to make that happen.

“Andy is one of the most approachable managers I’ve ever met in my life. He’ll always make time for you whether you are the biggest star or not. I’ve never felt pressured because I always felt he had belief in me.”

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