Ireland Under-20 winger Stephen Fitzgerald knows that Scotland, their final U-20 RBS 6 Nations opponents, pose a massive threat to denying them their third Championship victory.
Like tonight’s visitors, the Scotland Under-20s have experienced their share of highs and lows in recent weeks, from their impressive 36-34 win over Wales to the deflating defeats to France (47-6) and England (26-11). With the latter two sides meeting in a title decider, it leaves the Scottish and Irish scrapping with Wales for the minor placings.
Stephen Fitzgerald, a try scorer against both France and England, said: “Scotland have had a bit of a weird one. They were beaten by France in the first match, but then they came out and beat Wales. Everyone was shocked at that after Wales had beaten England.
“But we’ve reviewed them and they’re a really physical team who work their socks off. You don’t get anything easy off them, but they’ve got plenty of skillful players as well. It will be a really interesting match.”
Fitzgerald is developing into a fine back-three player, having already made his Munster debut in a pre-season friendly against Gloucester last August. He has also made a handful of appearances for Munster ‘A’ and captained both Ard Scoil Ris and the Munster Under-20s.
Twelve months ago Fitzgerald’s Ard Scoil Ris team lost their Munster Schools Senior Cup final to Crescent College Comprehensive. His younger brother, Conor, unfortunately experienced that very same emotion earlier this week when he was part of the Ard Scoil Ris side that was beaten by Rockwell College in the Schools Cup decider.
“The pace of international rugby is something I’ve never experienced before. Especially in that English match on the 4G pitch in Donnybrook, at times you’d barely even be breathing. You want to get off and lie down on the floor for a few minutes!,” quipped Stephen, who has been using his natural speed to good effect for Shannon in Ulster Bank League Division 1B.
The Fitzgeralds’ father John was a member of the last Limerick team to win an All-Ireland Minor Hurling title in 1984. Growing up in a sports-mad household, Stephen and Conor were encouraged to try all sports and both seem to have a bright future ahead of them in rugby.
Lining out alongside some of his Munster heroes in that pre-season friendly against Gloucester was a real thrill for Stephen who explained: “Donncha O’Callaghan was playing in that (pre-season) match. It was kind of surreal, because I was just out of school and focusing on playing for Munster 20s that year.
“Then the couple of injuries, after the (Limerick World Club) Sevens, I was called in and it was an incredible day to be involved in. I remember before the match I had never been so nervous in my life. I supported Munster all my life and it would have been a dream to ever put on the jersey.
“In the dressing room before, Donncha was really getting his voice across. You would think somebody with that experience he wouldn’t really care about a couple of ‘A’ matches, but when he comes down to young lads it seems like he nearly enjoys himself more – even joining in with the craic with us and everything. He just seems like a guy who loves what he’s doing. Obviously that would rub off on everyone.”
Fitzgerald missed Ireland’s opening round win away in Italy but with fellow Shannon and Munster ‘A’ team-mate Greg O’Shea picking up an injury, Nigel Carolan brought him into the starting line-up for the France clash. He has been there ever since.
It has been a mostly positive tournament for Fitzgerald with some good memories against France being the highlight. However, missing out on a try against England when he fumbled a cross-field kick was ‘devastating’ at the time.
“I was very happy with the French match, being my first, getting that try was a nice way to start. Last week was more of a defensive effort (against Wales), they had so much of the ball and we weren’t that good in attack. I would have preferred if the team had done better in the last two matches, but personally I’ve been happy enough (with my performances).
“(For the try-scoring chance against England) I saw one of the English players coming across me and I just wanted to try and get through him and stay on the floor. I didn’t want to go up in the air (for the cross-field kick), because I thought if I did somebody would tackle me (off balance) and drive me back.
“At the last second when I was going up for it the light kind of got in my eye-line and unfortunately I knocked it on. I got a lot of stick about it. You have to laugh it off now, but at the time it was devastating.”
Tonight’s clash with Scotland represents the final chance to impress on the international stage before the Ireland squad is selected for the World Rugby Under-20 Championship in the summer. Fitzgerald is enjoying being in the Irish set-up where the players have come together and gelled well, and the target now is to end the campaign with a second away win.
“Obviously we’d prefer to win the Six Nations if we could, but that’s gone now. We have to use that experience to push on, Scotland are going to be in our group for the World Cup, so it would be nice to get a bit of a marker laid down.
“You want to finish on a high. It will be good to get a break, some of us are really sore and the knocks are having an impact on our bodies, but you want to finish on a high going into a World Cup.”