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'I don't think about it too much' - Denis Hickie has no regrets about walking away at 31

He says he could have played longer, but the wing is content that he made the right choice.

Rugby fans might think he should have stayed on but Denis Hickie thought at 31, it was time to go.
Rugby fans might think he should have stayed on but Denis Hickie thought at 31, it was time to go.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

DENIS HICKIE WAS young when he retired, but you might not remember just how young he was when he said ‘no mas’. He was only 31 when he decided to step away from the sport after the 2007 World Cup. Speedster Shane Williams was still dancing around defenders en route to upsetting Leinster in the 2012 Pro12 final at 35.

31 is almost the new 28 in rugby now. Brian O’Driscoll made it to 35, Gordon D’Arcy will be that age in February and Girvan Dempsey, who is four months older than Hickie, played three more seasons than the winger did. Leaving the sport (without injury forcing it) at 31 almost makes him rugby’s Bjorn Borg.

The timing of Hickie’s departure kind of makes you scratch your head and ask, why?

Why did he leave at 31? Why did he leave when he was playing some of the greatest rugby of his career? Why doesn’t he regret it at all?

Hickie is strange in that not only does he not regret retiring when he did, he says that he never really thinks about it either. Some players could say something like that and you could easily see the opposite was true; Hickie says it so matter-of-factly that it is hard to doubt him.

“It was a decision I made at the time and I don’t think about it too much,” Hickie said.

“I knew I could have played a couple of more years but I was perfectly happy with my decision. I just felt I wanted to move on and do other things and take a little time to do it.

“I had ten fantastic years and I just felt the time was right. It was one of those things that is very hard to explain. I thought about it a lot. It wasn’t a snap decision and I can’t say I regretted it.”

That explanation is probably hard to understand for some Irish rugby fans, who would have liked to see Hickie play some part in the Grand Slam and Heineken Cup triumphs. Would he have started in either? It’s possible but even the opportunity to be involved in the 22, like Dempsey with Leinster in 2009, must surely make Hickie a little despondent?

Denis Hickie call for attention Hickie played some of his most exciting stuff in his last 6 Nations campaign in 2007. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Once again, he says it doesn’t. Hickie is now a development manager with Mainstream Renewable Power and hasn’t allowed the success his teams have had recently to make him second guess his decision.

“I genuinely haven’t [regretted his decision] and that is a sign of a well thought out idea before doing it,” Hickie said.

“It wasn’t a reaction to something or there wasn’t an injury. The decision wasn’t made for me and that is the root of it for me.

“Rugby players often don’t get to make that decision. Sometimes their career is taken away from them because of injury or you get cut from a contract. I think being able to make that decision yourself is the key to never regretting it.”

Being able to go out on his own terms was very important to Hickie. A ruptured Achilles tendon robbed him of a season in 2004 and a dislocated right fibula in 2005 cost him the guts of another. Looking back now, you could say that regaining his Ireland place in 2006/07 – and marking the occasion with footwork to match his Wikipedia given nickname, ‘Disco Den’ – was Hickie’s way of ensuring he could dictate his own retirement.

Source: MottiRugby/YouTube

No injury was going to force him out of action and he wasn’t cut loose by Leinster. You are meant to always leave people wanting more, and Hickie certainly did that. Sean O’Brien is now facing a similar situation to Hickie – injury-wise – and Hickie thinks the increased collisions in the modern game have made injuries – and the length of time spent on the sidelines – more commonplace.

“Injury in professional rugby is very much a fact of life,” Hickie said.

“The way the game is going now, if you have a ten year career – especially as a forward – you are probably only really talking about six or seven seasons. In my day, a ten year career was probably an eight year career.

“You probably missed one full season and if you aggregate the other time you probably missed another year. I just think with the attritional nature of rugby – the size and the power – you are talking about a six to seven year career.

“You will have exceptions like the Jamie Heaslips of this world but five years ago, players were missing a season, maybe two but now they are missing three seasons, maybe four. That is just how it is.”

Not only did Hickie recover from those horrible injuries, but the last 18 months of his career saw him play some of his most exciting rugby ever. The body might have had more miles on it, but the wheels were still able to spin at 100 miles an hour.

The highlight of his late career renaissance was probably the breathtaking length-of-the-field try he scored against Toulouse. There is an archive of magical Hickie moments available for peoples perusal on Youtube, and while Hickie loves the memories, he denies ever typing his name into the search bar on Google and indulging in some of his greatest hits.

“I don’t [type his name into Youtube], I don’t or it is certainly something that I would never admit to doing,” Hickie laughs.

Source: Mildy Mac/YouTube

“Someone said it to me recently in work but it is usually attached to a wind-up at the end of it. I have nothing but fond memories of that and it is a nice thing to be able to look back on.”

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AIG in Ireland have joined a global AIG campaign to improve rugby safety.  As official Insurance Partner of New Zealand Rugby, AIG has pledged over €35,000 to help improve safety standards in the game.  The launch of the awards program, the AIG Rugby Safety Awards, will see six clubs or schools selected to receive funding to help develop rugby safety at their club or school.

The public have until October 31, 2014 to enter and entry is simple.  The safe entries submitted via www.AIG.com/SafeRugby or using #AIGSafeRugby will be hosted on the online portal.

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