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Life after rugby in NZ

As our most revered sport, rugby demands a lot from those at the elite level. But what happens when it doesn’t all work out? Teuila Fuatai speaks to one player who unexpectedly found himself in the famous French wine region of Bordeaux, rather than on New Zealand’s rugby pastures.

Simon Hickey is an Auckland boy through-and-through. The good-natured first-five, who hails from a tight-knit family and circle of friends, always planned to play out his rugby days in his beloved home-city.

But after a disappointing season with the Blues in 2015, which resulted in his failure to be re-signed with the Super franchise, the then 21-year-old found himself considering a wholly unfamiliar situation.

“I used to think the idea of going and playing anywhere out of Auckland — even inside New Zealand — wasn’t for me,” a rather bemused Hickey says from his Bordeaux apartment living room.

“Even the idea of going and living and playing in Christchurch didn’t really appeal. And then I ended up on the other side of the world. I guess it made me realise that there’s a lot more out there and it’s not as daunting as I thought it was.”

Despite that, and his rocky second season with the Blues, a range of opportunities and challenges have developed for the former New Zealand Under-20 player that he never imagined would stem from his rugby career — from learning a new language, to learning how to live away from his mum. Hickey, once considered the answer to the Blues long-standing drought of quality first-fives, admits he has matured a lot in the last two seasons.

“I had always lived at home and the first year when I arrived, I knew a couple of boys ... before I got here — but they were older than me. So, I lived by myself, which was interesting and very lonely at times, but I learnt a lot from it and became a lot more self-reliant.”

Adjusting to the French style of play was another important lesson during his first year.

“I guess back home it’s more about playing an entertaining brand of rugby. So all of the teams I played for and, I think, most of the teams in New Zealand, try and play exciting rugby.

“From a technical perspective, as a first-five you’d usually be looking to run first, and kick second or even third. Over here, especially in the winter months, it’s kick first. That took a bit of adapting to and I got dropped during the first year because that wasn’t natural to me. But I’ve learnt and it’s probably been good for me to learn two different styles.”

“Last night I even had a conversation with my landlord for about five minutes in French ... I walked away feeling quite proud of myself.”

And along with the French style of play, Hickey has also had to work hard on his French — which saw a marked improvement this season due to a demand for more of the language on-field from the coaches.

“I had been trying to learn a little bit. But I guess when you’re speaking French and you know you’re not very good, you can be quite self-conscious, and so I wouldn’t speak it unless I had to.

“Then, the coach at the start of the year said to me he wanted me to speak more French. I just had to stop worrying about what I sounded like and give it a go, and I know everyone here appreciates it a lot more when you do that, even if you’re not very good.”

That push has led to better things on and off the field, he says.

“Last night I even had a conversation with my landlord for about five minutes in French. It was very broken French, but it was probably the biggest conversation I’ve ever had — I walked away feeling quite proud of myself,” he chuckles.

Hickey has also picked up his studies again. The talented sportsman — who captained King’s College’s first XI cricket team while at high school — has been working extramurally to complete a bachelor of commerce through Massey University.

“Overall, I do feel a bit more relaxed about things. I certainly want to play rugby for another 10 years, but I guess the idea of the degree is trying to be prepared if, for some reason, it stops earlier.”

For now, he has the rest of the Northern Hemisphere season with Bordeaux and then the next two seasons in Scotland, after signing with Edinburgh.

Hickey: “By then, I’ll be 26 or 27 — I would like to go and play at home at some stage, and maybe that will be after that, but it depends if they want me back home.

“I guess I’ll just wait and see.”

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