Luke Fitzgerald believes he has been “vindicated” and not “lucky” to end his agonising battle with chronic groin injuries and win his first Ireland start in four years.
The Leinster centre believes hard graft – not fortune – has dragged him back from the brink of premature retirement to a starting berth in Saturday’s RBS 6 Nations finale in Scotland.
The 27-year-old will win his 28th cap as Ireland bid to retain the Six Nations title on points-difference at Murrayfield, in his first Test start since August 2011.
Fitzgerald appreciates he is “blessed” to represent Ireland, but believes winning his two-year injury fight owed little to chance.
“It’s any guy’s dream to be involved in that starting XV and I’m lucky enough to be pulling on the green jersey this weekend - well I say lucky but I probably don’t believe that,” said Fitzgerald.
“I’ve worked really, really hard to get back into this position, and I feel like it’s all that hard work vindicated.
“It’s hard when you feel like you’re a million miles away and you’re close to retiring because you just can’t figure out injuries, but I find it really hard to say I’m lucky to be in.
“I’m obviously blessed to be in the position, but I worked really, really hard, and I’m delighted with the opportunity.”
Fitzgerald has replaced Simon Zebo on Ireland’s left wing for the pivotal Scotland clash, the Munster flyer paying the price for a sloppy showing in 23-16 defeat to Wales – although his overall Six Nations performance has been far from impressive.
Ireland blew their Grand Slam chance in Cardiff last weekend and head coach Joe Schmidt has parachuted Fitzgerald into the side, with Cian Healy replacing Jack McGrath in the front-row.
Fitzgerald’s last Test start was in Ireland’s 19-12 World Cup warm-up defeat to France in August 2011, the Leinster star then missing the cut for the New Zealand tournament.
The 2009 British and Irish Lion was driven to the cusp of retirement after a string of neck, knee, hip, abdominal and groin problems - but admitted his Test return has now made all the pain worth enduring.
“I was pretty close with some pretty major injuries; I just couldn’t see a way back and figure out what the problem was,” said Fitzgerald.
“I just couldn’t figure it out: it was so frustrating coming in three times a day, working hard and getting no results.
“So I feel it’s an awful lot of hard work rewarded today.
“I’ve been reminded constantly today that it’s four years since my last start in a Six Nations match.
“I’m absolutely delighted to be involved in this for the big one.”
Fitzgerald has shaken off his injury malaise to find top form for Leinster this term, and was hotly tipped to feature from the off in the Six Nations.
The versatile three-quarter has his first chance to impress in the last match of the tournament then, and candidly admitted he thought his opportunity would come sooner.
Fitzgerald revealed he commiserated Zebo on stealing his starting berth – then vowed to do the Munster man and his team mates justice this weekend.
“I can’t lie, I was thinking it might come sooner,” said Fitzgerald. “But from a coach’s perspective, and you’ve got to be empathetic even when you’re so invested, changing a winning team is always tricky. “The boys have been doing a really good job for a long period of time.”