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Former Leinster hooker Hickie guiding US rugby's future stars

The ex-Leicester and London Irish front row is playing an important role in the sport’s growth in the States.

“I STRONGLY BELIEVE that the USA is going to be a force in the future, but right now we’re still playing catch up.”

We’re well used to natives of the US stating their conviction and confidence in the sporting sphere, but perhaps less so when it comes to rugby. Currently ranked as the 16th-best nation on the planet by World Rugby, the US has far loftier ambitions in mind.

IMG_8162 Gavin Hickie has a fast-growing reputation in US rugby.

Former Leinster hooker Gavin Hickie is one of a handful of Irishmen driving the development of the oval ball game in the States, particularly having been recently appointed as head coach of the AIG Men’s Collegiate All-Americans.

Hickie also occupies the same position with Ivy League university Dartmouth, located in New Hampshire.

The Ireland A and Ireland Sevens-capped Dubliner may not be a US native, but he proudly declares himself an American having first moving across the Atlantic in 2008 to take up a playing opportunity.

“This is my home,” says Hickie. “I still keep a close eye on my old club St. Mary’s – I was gutted by their relegation this season – but I’m passionate to see USA do well.

My wife is here, my dog is here, I just bought a house here, I get my citizenship this year. I’m always proud of my Irish roots and I always keep my Irish accent, but I’ll claim to be American.”

Having come through St. Mary’s College and played for Ireland Schools and U19s, Hickie broke into the Leinster set-up in 2001, going on to make over 40 appearances before venturing to England to play with London Irish, Worcester and Leicester Tigers.

Still only 35 today, Hickie’s career was ultimately dampened by a horrendous shoulder injury sustained when tackling Sale’s Jason Robinson while with Leicester.

Nine months later, and looking for way to break back into playing, Hickie was linked up with Californian club Belmont Shore by his former Worcester teammate and good friend Mike MacDonald, still the most-capped USA international of all time.

Gavin Hickie 7/11/2003 Hickie on the attack for Leinster against Llanelli in 2003. Source: INPHO

Leicester agreed to allow Hickie, a cousin of ex-Ireland wing Denis, to end his contract in England early and he took off for the States.

“I got off a flight on a Wednesday in March 2008, came to Belmont Shore, played on the Friday and it was a reality check. You’re changing in the back of a car in a field and you go out and get smashed by Americans.

“What I really enjoyed about it was that it rekindled your desire as to why you got into the game in the first place. There was no glamour, no glory and it was just back to bare bones. That was extremely satisfying and the season went really well for us.

I had planned to go back to Europe after three months to get a contract, but of course you make these plans and it never turns out that way. I met a young lady who is today my wife and the rest, as they say, is history.”

Having got a taste for coaching with St. Mary’s and then the Leicester academy side, Hickie slowly transitioned away from playing and by 2012 – having jumped between Ireland and the US – he had fully settled stateside and taken over at Belmont along with fellow Irishman Ray Egan, a former Munster academy coach.

A successful season saw Hickie immediately drafted into the USA U20s’ set-up as their forwards specialist and he helped that side to victory at the 2012 Junior World Trophy.

His growing reputation saw him field a call from Alex Magleby at Dartmouth College asking him to leave California and head east to take over as head coach of the Ivy League school. That was three years ago and “it’s just been amazing ever since.”

The major challenge in collegiate coaching in the US is that many of the players Hickie and others like fellow Irishman Greg McWilliams at Yale are dealing with simply have no rugby history whatsoever. Fortunately that is beginning to change.

IMG_4404 Hickie's enthusiasm for the game is infectious. Source: Bing Guan

“It’s such a conundrum in the USA in terms of rugby development,” says Hickie. “Things are shifting massively from the time I was first here to now, things are changing in a big way.

“The way they’re changing is that more kids are being exposed to rugby at a younger age. That’s the key for long-term development, I believe. More kids applying to college who have a strong rugby background.

“Before, vast majority of players were playing rugby for the first time ever in college. They didn’t have the understanding that you take for granted after growing up in rugby, in terms of execution of skills, the timing of that execution and understanding of the game.”

Despite Dartmouth being the smallest of the Ivy League institutions, with only around 4,000 undergraduates, Hickie and his players have been able to continue a recent history of success and the ‘Big Green’ have won the last eight Ivy Rugby Conferences.

Their Brophy rugby field is the “most picturesque” Hickie says he’s seen, while a squad of around 70 players means Dartmouth field three competitive teams.

Hickie’s sheer enthusiasm for rugby in the US bursts through in his every word; he is utterly passionate about the future of the game on American soil. Having been appointed as head coach of the Collegiate All-Americans, that thirst will be well needed in a busy role.

The All-Americans is essentially a squad of the best college players in the States, but the programme has a broadened remit this season in being a year-long scouting, monitoring and development operation, rather than just an end-of-season rep team.

Hickie and his assistants, McWilliams of Yale and Justin Hickey of Clemson, are responsible for finding and improving players who will be of “international quality for the 2019 and 2023 Rugby World Cups.”

Gavin Hickie Hickie in action for Ireland A in 2002. Source: INPHO

One of the aspects that excites Hickie is the possibilities for crossover athletes in the US, exceptional competitors from other sports who take up rugby.

“We have the rugby players, I believe, and if we don’t quite have rugby players we have them in the making,” explains Hickie. “The athletic ability of a kid here who plays football, baseball, all these sports growing up and then gets to college and becomes involved in any sport, it’s pretty high performance.

“The athletes are certainly here; we just need to make sure they’re aware of rugby and then we need to stoke their interest in rugby.

“I think that’s going to be America’s competitive advantage in the future. How many wrestlers are there in Ireland? Not many, but there’s a whole country of wrestlers here and wrestlers make fantastic props.

What about basketball players? We don’t have too many in Ireland whereas we’ve got great skilled basketball players here who can decision-make on the go, be under pressure and it’s constant.”

Hickie believes the prospect of World Cups and the Olympic sevens will be a lure for ambitious athletes to convert to rugby at earlier stages. He points to sevens star Carlin Isles as an example: “There are others like Carlin Isles out there!”

There is also the prospect of young players moving to the States to study and therefore becoming eligible for international rugby after completing their four years of college. In that regard, former Blackrock man AJ McGinty is a shining illustration.

Hickie’s role with the Collegiate All-Americans will mean an additional travelling workload as he scouts and maintains contact with an even wider range of players and coaches.

Gavin Hickie coaching for USA rUGBY

In the next month alone, he will visit Philadelphia, Ohio, California, Utah and Denver, all the while maintaining his focus on Dartmouth. It’s fortunate the self-professed “rugby nerd” has a ceaseless appetite for the sport.

The 35-year-old also runs the popular Lineout Coach website and is currently writing a book that will be published by Bloomsbury later this year.

“It’s called ‘Rugby Revealed’,” explains Hickie. “Myself and my co-author, Eilidh Donaldson, interviewed over 100 players and coaches in the modern professional game, and the book is very much about what are the skills needed in their specific position to get to the top.

It’s directed at a lot of younger players who maybe don’t fully grasp the work that players put in and the desire they’ve got to have, plus the good fortune they’ve got to have.”

It’s taxing finding the time for everything, but Hickie is loving the challenges and so far has been successful in the States.

The Dartmouth boss explains that he is consistently “learning from and building relationships with other coaches,” citing former US lock Luke Gross, University of California coach Jack Clark, Magleby [now USA Rugby's director of performance], and IRFU technical director Steve Aboud as men who help to “steer me in the right direction.”

He plans to travel to New Zealand and South Africa to take up invites from the array of world-class coaches he has interviewed for his book, pushing himself constantly to improve his skills.

“That’s one of the most exciting things for me as a coach: what can I learn today?”

********************

Check out The42 tomorrow morning for an interview with another Irishman coaching in the Ivy League Conference, Greg McWilliams of Yale.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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