Connacht head coach Andy Friend has hailed the impact of young fly-half Conor Fitzgerald since joining the province from Munster in 2018.
The 22-year-old is originally a product of the Munster Academy but joined the Connacht equivalent late last year before making his senior debut in the Challenge Cup last October.
Fitzgerald has been highly impressive so far this season and his performances culminated in a starting position ahead of Jack Carty against Toulouse in the Heineken Champions Cup last weekend.
Speaking at a PRO14 media event early this week, Friend lavished praise on Fitzgerald, especially given the manner in which he stepped up in Carty’s absence during the World Cup.
“He’s been fantastic this year. We’ve had a lot of blokes step up this year but he’s been one. We all saw the brilliance of Jack Carty last year and that brilliance is still there, we’ll see that again this year, no doubt.
“In Jack’s absence, Conor has stepped up and said, ‘I’m ready to take the 10 jersey.’ He was actually disappointed, like any player is, when we didn’t select him in the Leinster game because in his mind he had been playing good footy and in our mind, he had been playing good footy but Jack is a returning international and came back in.
“So when we gave Conor a chance to come on and go well in that Montpellier game, he did really well in that game. He’s got enormous self-belief, which is what you need at the highest level of the game. He’s very aware of the strengths in his game and he continues to nail it, we talk about our weapons. In the areas of deficiency in his game, he’s happy to work on that.
“He knows he has done the work going in to give a performance and I reckon that is the most important thing for any sportsperson. You back yourself, you know you’ve got skill, use your weapon and the rest should work out for you.”
Friend admitted that academy players don’t always make the big time but praised Fitzgerald’s maturity in adapting to the step up and for his decision to make the move from his home province.
“It’s not an exact science as to when someone is going to show their true colours so this is the hard thing with academies. Certain players start to look really good in the middle of an academy season and then it’s obvious what is going to happen with them. Others mature later and fall out the other end.
“We’re seeing that with our academy, some brilliant young fellas coming through and they have ended up in the pro squad and they continue to grow. Conor had a lot of tens in front of him at Munster and the opportunity was at Connacht and he has taken that.”
When you have an international player in your squad, they are naturally the preferred starter for most competitive games, however, Carty now has a battle on his hands to retain the number 10 jersey.
The Australia native admitted that it can be “tricky” trying to manage the players’ game time but maintained he will do what is in their’s and Connacht’s best interest.
“It’s always a balance. It’s tricky and it depends on the individual. I’m feeling for Jack Carty at the moment as well because he is coming back from a World Cup. As brilliant as Jack was last year you want to do what’s best for Jack and for Conor and for David Horowitz who hasn’t played any football.
“As long as we are sharing with the players what we are thinking and we are very honest with them – this is where we see you and what we are thinking. I use the words ‘trust us’ a lot.
“We do care about you as a footballer. If we are not picking you then this is the reason why but you’ve got to trust us that we do respect you as a footballer and there will be opportunities for you.”