Denis Hickie – Ireland’s preparations and the World Cup atmosphere.
The Rugby World Cup 2011 kicks off in two days. All of the participating teams have arrived in New Zealand and are eagerly awaiting commencement of battle. Thousands of rugby fans from around the globe are
converging in the land of the All Blacks. The anticipation is palpable!
In order to get an inside view into the quadrennial competition, there will be a series of interviews with rugby stars past and present.
In the first of these interviews I am joined by Denis Hickie. Hickie represented St. Mary’s College, Leinster, Ireland and the British & Irish Lions. Capped 62 times by Ireland, Denis Hickie enjoyed a decade of professional rugby at the highest level and knows first hand the highs and lows of world cup participation.
Denis Hickie gives us his thoughts on Irish rugby, the World Cup and much more….
Part I: Ireland’s preparations and the Rugby World Cup atmosphere.
LOC – All the teams have landed safely in New Zealand are are waiting for the tournament to commence. How does a world cup environment differ to 6 Nations atmosphere?
DENIS HICKIE – The World Cup atmosphere is unique. Pre professional era, teams like Ireland would have gone on end of season tours lasting about 6 weeks. Since the dawn of professionalism, end of season tours only last 2 to 3 weeks. So, apart from the Biritish & Irish Lions, there is no other time where you are with your teammates and away from home for such an extended period. That in itself creates a very different and unique environment between the players.
As a player, you are aware that all the other teams are nearby which helps to build the anticipation and the fact that the competition is only held every 4 years, ensures that there is a very different feel to the world cup as opposed to any other tournament. Players really look forward to competing at a World Cup.
LOC – This unique atmosphere is partly created by being away with your teammates for so long. Do you think that Irish players would be at a disadvantage as a host nation for the World Cup?
DENIS HICKIE – Not at all. The experience would be different but it would be fantastic. The country would be all consumed by rugby like it is in New Zealand and that would be amazing for Irish rugby. I firmly believe that Ireland will host the rugby world cup at some stage. We have the infrastructure to host the tournament in the future.
LOC – There has been been some negative press about the manner in which the Irish team is playing at the moment. Does this affect the players?
DENIS HICKIE – Well, I was in the squad during the last World Cup in France in 2007 and there was huge negative press surrounding the team. The proximity of the competition to Ireland did not help as every Irish newspaper and magazine had media personnel following us everywhere. Also, some of those journalists in 2007 were not rugby or even sports journalists so a lot of the media coverage was not rugby related at all. That was very difficult because it was something that the players never had to deal with before.
I expect that it will be different in New Zealand this time round. There simply won’t be as many Irish journalists at the tournament due to it’s location. Having said that, if Ireland underperform during the competition, I am sure there will be a lot of negative publicity. Although media attention can be a distraction for a team it is not the primary cause of difficulties within any squad. It is a factor but all the players are professional and are very good at shutting it out. The sole focus is on all the hard work it has taken to get to the World Cup and performances throughout. Everything else is secondary.
LOC – You have played rugby in New Zealand, what kind of reception would the teams have got?
DENIS HICKIE – The atmosphere in New Zealand now would be quite different to the times I was down there with Ireland and the British & Irish Lions. When it is an end of season tour or a Lions tour, you are the only other team in the country and of course you are playing the All Blacks so you are copping it from every angle. New Zealand supporters are extremely loyal and constantly remind you how good their All Blacks are. It would be the equivalent of a hurling team from abroad touring around Kilkenny for a month. Rugby is the number one sport in New Zealand and any touring side becomes the sole focus of media attention. It can be quite a shock to the system especially coming from Ireland where rugby is not the first or second most popular sport.
It is not just Ireland playing against New Zealand. All 20 competing nations are in the same place so the media coverage will be a lot more balanced. I think this could be good for Ireland. Expectations are relatively low following the warm up games, despite some good rugby played at times and a very successful domestic season.
LOC – Do you feel the Irish squad is better prepared for this World Cup as opposed to 4 years ago?
DENIS HICKIE – I think that if you ask any of the players or Eddie O’Sullivan himself, the general consensus is that we did not play enough high intensity games leading up to the World Cup in ’07. There is far more value in losing to France and England, in very competitive games than hammering a makeshift Bayonne team by 50 points. Although the results did not go Ireland’s way, the whole squad will have learned a lot from those defeats. The number of high intensity warm up games has been a key difference in Ireland’s preparations.
LOC – Given recent form perhaps Ireland are fortunate to kick off their campaign against supposed “minnows” USA Rugby?
DENIS HICKIE – The perceived strength of the opposition is no guarantee of a result. Look at what happened in 2007. Our first game was against Namibia, who we were expected to beat easily. The assumption is that it is easier than playing against, say, France or South Africa in your first game but each team brings it’s own challenges and difficulties. Expectations are different too and that can have an impact on performances. I do not believe that Ireland will get caught out like we were in 2007. Ireland are fully aware that not only do they have to win but they have to win well.
Part III: Denis Hickie answers your Twitter questions.
Gavin Hickie, USA Rugby U20s Forwards Coach, is a former Ireland, Leinster and Leicester rugby player now based in California and taking rugby to the USA. He writes for RugbyMag.com and other publications when not coaching for Belmont Shore and blogging on lineoutcoach.com #busy