Man on a mission: Resilient Fitzpatrick has unfinished business
Recovering from a torn ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) to continue a sporting career is fast-becoming a commonplace occurrence in the professional arena. The severity of such an injury to an elite athlete used to signal a potential hanging up of the boots, but advances in medical technology and surgical techniques have meant that more often than not, the injured party can now make a full recovery and resume his/her place back in their chosen field in around nine months.
Recovering from two ACL’s to the same knee is a little bit more problematic, particularly in such a gladiatorial sport as rugby, where each and every contact with an opposing player is a potential contest for the ball, played out by any number of 100-plus kilo behemoths – and that’s just the backs.
But while a second tear to the same area is far from ideal, and can leave a player exposed to further problems down the line, with today’s technology and the advances in the rehabilitation process, bodies can and do recover, and players are able to resume battle once again.
Yet you wonder at what cost come the mental demons for the individuals involved, in both dealing with the initial setback, and perhaps even more so, the demoralising aftermath of boredom, frustration and uncertainty endured over the long months of recovery. The hurdles to be faced inside one’s own head that must affect a supremely honed athlete, someone who has trained his/her whole life to reach such levels, only to have that existence threatened not once, but twice.
So it’s hard to even begin to imagine the anguish and despair you would experience if you suffered an ACL to the same knee three times, all before you’d barely turned 24-years-old.
A standout in all his age groups, Damien Fitzpatrick was earmarked as a future star of the game from the time he was handed the captaincy of the Australian Schoolboys side back in 2007. A product of Joey’s rugby nursery, the talented young hooker had already skippered the Schools First XV to an undefeated Premiership, and led the combined GPS First XV, before being handed leadership of the nations finest young talent.
Leading out a side that included Rob Horne, Matt Toomua, James Slipper, Joe Tomane and James O’Connor, the 17-year-old Fitzpatrick oversaw an undefeated season with victories over touring sides from New Zealand, England and Samoa. A club career with Eastwood beckoned and unsurprisingly, his state soon came calling as well, and he made his NSW Waratahs debut in 2009 against the Crusaders, the same year he captained the Aussie Under 20’s to the semi-finals of the Junior World Cup in Japan. So far, so good – right?
We’ll let ‘Fitzy’ talk us through what happened next…
“I’d made my Waratahs debut at 19-years-old and I thought I was tracking along nicely,” he recalled to. “I then got to the point when I was around 22 where I felt I was ready to take that next jump up but unfortunately, that’s when injuries struck me.
“In 2011 I had done a meniscus tear in my knee which put me out for the last eight games of that season. Later that year we had a great Shute Shield at Eastwood and won the comp, and I’d had a good pre-season with the Tahs off the back of that, but I did my ACL in round three of Super Rugby 2012. That was the year I felt I was going to be playing my best rugby, but I had to do a whole year of rehab and then unfortunately, on the first day of pre-season when Michael Cheika arrived as head coach, I did my ACL again – the same knee – during a fitness test.
“That was another nine months of rehab which took me to the end of the 2013 season where I had a decision to make. I’d missed an awful lot of rugby for my age, there were pressures to stay here but then I got the offer to go over to France. I was ready to play and I didn’t want to go through another pre-season. I’d been at the Waratahs for a long time and I hadn’t played much rugby and I think I needed a change mentally to be honest.”
So, after mustering a mere 22 caps in five heavily disrupted years, Fitzpatrick headed to the South-East of France to join Lyon, then coached by former Wallaby utility back and Manly Marlins legend Tim Lane. Les Loups (the Wolves) were a team on the up, seeking promotion from the ProD2 (France’s second division) to join the big boys in the Top 14. Life was suddenly looking rosy again. And yet…
“Lyon is a fantastic place, I loved the team and I settled in well. And then 11 games in I did the same knee for a third time,” sighs Fitzpatrick. “That was three ACL’s on the same knee in 18 months – for a 24-year-old. There was obviously a reason this kept happening, my body simply wasn’t right to play rugby. So I basically thought I was going to have to retire at that stage.”
Having discussed pulling the pin with his parents and facing the harsh reality of an unfulfilled dream, it was his newly adopted club that came to the rescue.
“Luckily, I must have been playing ok at the time because Lyon told me there was a fantastic surgeon based in the city, world renowned, and why didn’t I just go and see what he says before I think about calling it a day. He looked at my history of injuries, all of which had actually occurred with no contact, and said ‘Something doesn’t add up.’
“I had a bunch of scans and what he discovered was that genetically, I had a problem with my tibial slope, the way my leg bone comes up to my knee on the left leg. It was actually bent 15 degrees differently to my right leg, which was putting extra pressure on my ACL. So he said ‘Look, I’ve never done this on a rugby player before but I have performed this surgery on two professional soccer players, and it fixed their knees.’
“The surgery involved reconstructing my knee again, but at the same time he had to cut my patella (kneecap) off, lift it up, shorten my tibia, and put everything back together again. I guess I didn’t comprehend how big an operation that was but it was about a six hour surgery, after which I was sent up to the Swiss Alps for a month to rehab. That may sound quite nice but there were some pretty dark days back then.
“I was wheelchair-bound for about two weeks, my legs were completely bruised and a bit of a mess. It was a huge recovery process. Every day I went into training it was always for a purpose, but I guess the most frustrating times were on game day when you had to sit there and watch guys run out and play the sport you love to play and you’re not able to. But I never stopped loving the game.
“I’ve always believed that I can recover from things and I don’t lose focus very easily, which I suppose is a good trait to have when you’ve been injured as long as I have. During the rehab process, training is one of the things that can get guys down but I’ve always been an over-trainer and I’ve always loved that side of professional sport, so that made it a bit easier to get through some pretty cold winters in France.
“Lyon were amazing, they wanted me to play for them again and they said if I signed for another two years they would cover the cost of the surgery and rehab etc. I came back, I’ve been playing pretty well for about two years – and I haven’t had any problems with my knees.”
All of which brought him to the attentions of a certain Michael Cheika again, a meeting to discuss where his future may lie, and the decision to return home to the small matter of some unfinished business.
The Waratahs open their 2017 Super Rugby campaign with a visit from the Force on Saturday night at Allianz Stadium, and one of a host of new names on the Tahs roster this year is that of Fitzpatrick. The now 27-year-old has returned to his homeland and his home state on a mission, determined to make good on the goals he set himself when he first donned the Cambridge Blue jersey some eight years ago.
The irony of all ironies is that, after successfully completing an end-of-season stint with his beloved Woodies in 2016, followed up with a full NRC competition as a mainstay of the much-improved Sydney Rays, and completed a full and extensive pre-season with the Waratahs – he finds himself ruled out of contention until round two at the earliest, due to a precautionary approach to a neck complaint.
Not that selection is a given of course. With the departure of Waratahs stalwart Tatafu Polota-Nau, the giant shoes needing to be filled in the No.2 position will be contested by three equally viable alternatives, as Fitzpatrick joins up with newly anointed Wallaby Tolu Latu, and club associate Hugh Roach.
“Roachie and I have a relationship through Eastwood, we know each other well,” affirms Fitzpatrick. “We’re both incredibly competitive and it was awesome to get into training together and bounce off each other. Tolu wasn’t there for the beginning of pre-season, but I think all three of us are pretty mature guys who have forged strong relationships with each other now. We understand the situation, it’s professional rugby, we all play the same position and only two can be selected for each game. So each week we’re trying to get better and there’s no animosity around trying to help each other to improve.
“Daryl [Gibson] has told us that he has complete trust in starting any one of us, and I’m sure he will use each of us this season based on the form we’re in and maybe the opposition we are playing. It’s still early days so I’m not exactly sure how it will pan out but we’ve got to do what’s best for the team. If the coach taps you on the shoulder one week and says that playing off the bench or starting someone else might work best, you’ve just got to take it in your stride.”
Given the huge challenges he’s had to overcome just to get to this point in his rugby journey, fighting for a starting jersey is not about to faze someone who sees every game as a bonus. But underestimate his sunny disposition at your peril. He didn’t come back to Moore Park just to make up the numbers.
“I’ve set the bar right to the top,” says Fitzpatrick with a steely glare. “It took me a while, but playing in the Top 14 in France for the last couple of years has been fantastic and got me ready to come back here and try again, and the lure of coming home and potentially trying to fulfil goals that I had hoped to fulfil before I left, spurred me on.
“Obviously, I want to get a starting spot for the Waratahs and then really push for a Wallabies jersey, that’s what I want to do. Whether it happens or not is another story but that’s my goal and I think it should be every rugby player’s goal. That’s where I feel I can get to, I just have to go and prove it now.
“I’m very lucky to still be playing rugby at all with some of the surgeries I’ve had, but now I’ve got the chance to come back and play for my state again and make up for lost time. It’s a chance for me to show the New South Wales fans what I’m really about, something I didn’t get to do first time out. Unfinished business is a perfect way to put it.”
Gotta love a fighter.
First published by Rugby News on February 20th 2017