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Chasing a dream - Will Hickey's journey from Leinster to the Ospreys

BY Philip Bendon  ·  Thursday Jan 18, 2024

Chasing a dream is never easy and is certainly only for those willing to proactively push themselves to maximise every bit of their potential.

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For former St.Michael’s College and Leinster U19 standout Will Hickey, both the desire and the talent to maximise his career are evident when one watches him play.

The 22-year-old backrow took the leap of faith to chase his dream of playing professional rugby in quite possibly the most challenging of circumstances as the world got to grips with the covid-19 pandemic.

Will, like many other talented Leinster schoolboy players dedicated himself towards pushing towards a position in the ultra-competitive Leinster Rugby set-up.

Representing both Leinster and Ireland at U18 level before kicking on to not only play for the Leinster U19s a year later but captain the side, Will was Identified as one to watch. Performances at this level would see him crack into the Leinster sub academy as his time at St. Michaels drew to a close.

Will credits his time at the school as the perfect springboard from which to launch a career in rugby and, in particular, the cutthroat nature of the Leinster Senior Cup competition.

‘So in my second last year (2019) we won it, we probably haven’t won it as much as we should have. In terms of the talent coming out, though, it is a conveyor belt.

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‘At Michael’s, there are players being produced through the system, and it was a brilliant experience and so much fun playing there.

‘Looking back on my time there it was brilliant, all of my best friends from school are still my best friends now. Three of my closest mates are still in Leinster at the minute.

‘When I was the first year, James Ryan was captain of the 1st team in the Senior Cup, and Max Deegan was on the senior Cup team as well.

‘My brothers haven’t played professionally, but it turns out they have played with tons of professionals at school!

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‘So Dan Leavy was in my other brother’s year, and he kicked on and did amazing stuff. So you could always see other players kick on and go through the ranks to play Ireland U20s and for Leinster.

‘So that really gave people in the school belief, and then the S&C (Strength and Conditioning) and coaching with Andy Skehan and Emmet MacMahon made it such a culture that was so enjoyable and so exciting to be involved with.’

Discussing the hyper competitive Leinster Schools Senior Cup competition, Will explains why it is so revered around the province and how it aids the big game nous of players coming through the system.

‘It’s so competitive as well, the fact that it is knockout rugby, you could draw St. Michael’s and Blackrock together in the first round, and then one team is done.

‘You could train all the way through pre-season from July the previous year to the following February, and what you’ve been building to is done in 80 minutes, so it’s knockout rugby, and it’s so ruthless, which makes it exciting.

‘You only have to win four knockout games to win it, but it is so difficult to do.’

This exposure to such a high level from an early age planted the seeds of what was required to make it as a professional in the modern game.

Looking to take the next step, having come through the Leinster pathway system, Will would fall foul to the elongated restrictions around COVID-19, which limited playing opportunities in Ireland.

‘I played Leinster U18s and Ireland U18s and then Leinster U19s in 5th year and some camps as they go through the school season. Then in 6th year I was selected for the Ireland U19s but it was just after covid came so I was never in the academy, I was in the sub-academy but they usually take on a fairly substantial group for the sub-academy but because of covid they only took on a small group of us.

‘They were a weird couple of months because there were seven of us in there training for months, which was really good and tough.

‘That would have been 2020. I had done my hamstring but then came back once the games were starting up again, and we played a few ‘A’ league games, and then I got released in January of 2021, which was the middle of COVID, and there was no rugby.

‘It was that second wave of COVID where it had gone on, and everyone thought it was never going to end, and there was no end in sight.

‘I had just been let go then, and there was not going to be any form of organised training even if I went into the AIL (All Ireland League).’

Not one to wait around, Will took control of his own future and explored opportunities outside of the Irish Rugby umbrella.

‘I was just keen to not waste time and be a year down the line and not played any rugby. To be fair, I don’t think there was any AIL rugby being played consistently for a year after because I played that Racing game a year later, and that was still behind closed doors.

‘I just went straight away to start looking for opportunities, so I said to my parents that I was going to pursue an opportunity in the UK because the only way I can keep training to try and play professionally is within a professional environment.

‘So, the only opportunity for me to keep playing professionally was to look in the UK, so I looked at a few clubs in the UK, and Mike Ruddock knew my school coaches, and I had been to Wales in 6th year as we had played a game in Pontypridd that year.

‘I ended up being in Ospreys three weeks later, so it was a mad couple of weeks.’

Now firmly settled in Wales, the Dubliner went to work as he looked to establish himself amongst the immensely talented Ospreys squad.

‘When I first came to the Ospreys, the squad was stacked with massive names. Tips (Justin Tipuric) is here and in World Class and has been in class for a long time. I can’t think of any backrows who have been picked for three Lions tours in a row, which is nuts. It is such a competitive position, so to be that good for that long, and when he is out in training, he is still the best player on the pitch.

‘He is such a unique player, he is so different to other backrows. So he and Dan Lydiate were also here when I first arrived, and he is at the Dragons now. He was amazing, and so sound whilst being such a good guy.

‘Then you’ve got Alun Wyn (Jones) and George North, who is still here but off to France next year, who are the other big names.

‘I would have liked to have played with them more, but when I first arrived, those Welsh lads were just coming back from winning the Six Nations.

‘So it was mad that in a couple of weeks, Alun Wyn, Tipuric and all of those lads were coming back in. I was training with the senior squad, so it was really cool to be training with them.’

Now in the midst of a squad restructure following the cuts to the Welsh region’s budgets, Will is looking to be a difference maker as he has made his return from a long-term ACL and MCL injury.

‘Because we were such a young squad going to South Africa, I think we expected to get thumped, but we actually did alright, and there were exciting games coming around the corner. Then my ACL and MCL went, so I haven’t had an extended run of games with the Ospreys, so I am dying to get out there for the Ospreys.

‘Obviously, we have got a younger squad now, so we don’t have quite as much depth now because of the budget changes with Welsh Rugby.’

Whilst the Ospreys certainly have one of the younger squads in the URC, they still possess several high-level operators, with the likes of Adam Beard, Jac Morgan and Dewi Lake offering a strong leadership group.

Discussing Morgan, in particular, who many have tipped to follow in the footsteps of Tipuric and former Welsh captain Sam Warburton, Will said, ‘Jac (Morgan) has been outstanding, his performances for the last three years have been incredible, and he is world-class.’

Leading this young group is the experienced coach Toby Booth who is renowned as an exceptional man manager, Will was clear in his admiration for the coach.

‘Yeah Boothy (Toby Booth) has been brilliant, he has a lot of experience and has been in the game a long time.

‘I think he started in the Premiership at London Irish in the early 2000s, maybe even before, so he has been in it a long time.

‘You look at some of the results we have had under him, and whilst it’s been challenging at times, there have definitely been standout performances in Europe under him.

‘Looking at last season, there were two wins over Montpellier when they were the Champions of France, and we beat them home and away.

‘Then there was Leicester in Welford Road; he is always pushing lads and always challenging you.’

Despite injuries hampering his time with the Ospreys to date, for a player who still certainly has the best years ahead of him, Will has already gained experience against some of the best players in the game.

Starting with his debut against a Racing 92 side stacked to the brim with world-class talent, Will seized the opportunity immediately.

‘My first one was Racing. I was picked to play against Racing in Paris, but that game was called off (due to COVID-19), but a couple of weeks later, we had them at home, and I played in that game behind closed doors. I subbed on, which was really cool.

‘Their team at the time was so stacked, it was a bizarre game to plan because Finn Russell and Teddy Thomas and so many other big names were out on the pitch which was cool.

‘So that was my actual debut and then literally the week after that I did my ankle which almost ended my season which was annoying as it stopped me kicking on.

‘But yeah, my URC debut was against the Bulls in South Africa at altitude, so it was a tough one. That was my first week back from injury as well, so I was thrown in the deep end straight away, which was great.

‘It was really exciting, even just playing the Champions Cup. It was a game where we played really well, I was worried I wasn’t going to get on after all the build-up of the week. So by the time I got on, they were two scores ahead, so the lads who came off were a bit frustrated, so when they got on, they said just go out there and fly around and hit somebody.

‘So I just really enjoyed it and went full whack on it. Looking back on it now, it was class, and I met Mike Prendergast, who is now the attack coach for Munster and was the attack coach for Racing then.

‘I remember having a quick chat with him, to be fair to him he was really sound and went out of his way to come to me and say something along the lines of it, it is good to see another Irish player playing abroad and taking an opportunity abroad.’

Now firmly back in the picture, having put in an immensely impressive 76-minute shift in the Ospreys dominant win over Top 14 side Perpignan in round three of the Challenge Cup, Will is taking everything in his stride whilst focusing on the here and now.

Will Hickey #20 in action against Perpignan. 

‘I know it sounds cliché, but I just have to put one foot in front of the other and get back to being fit and playing.

‘Obviously my contract is up at the end of the year so I am just looking at every potential game I could play in to max out the end of the season and make the most of what’s left in the season.

‘Then it’s about making a plan and going forward from there.’

When asked about how his body felt, Will paid homage to the exceptional treatment he had received with the Ospreys.

‘Yeah, I feel good; the medical team at the Ospreys are brilliant. Chris Towers, who is head of the medical team, has been here for a long time and is outstanding.

‘He has the respect of all the senior players who have been here a long time.

‘Rehab is tough; you’re almost busier when you’re injured than when you’re fit.

‘Physically I feel really good, the knee might be a little bit niggly when I come back and start playing but that’s normal.

‘These last few weeks of training have been much better, and I feel ready to come back and start playing. I will probably still be nervous when I return and start playing, but I am excited.’

Touching on his performance against Perpignan, Will was ecstatic to be back out on the pitch, albeit the time away from live action had him feeling a bit rust on his return.

‘Definitely felt a bit rusty being out there after a year with certain things, and it was a bit of a shock coming on so early, but I really enjoyed it out there.

‘Perpignan made it really physical and was a bit of an eye-opener. They had some really good athletes putting in some big shots around the pitch, including on me.’

Next up for the Ospreys is a trip to South Africa to face the Emirates Lions at Ellis Park, a trip Will has made with the squad as they look to tackle the powerful Johannesburg squad on their home turf.

Another impressive showing will no doubt set him up for an exciting run towards the business end of the season, with the Ospreys currently in contention for knockout rugby in both the URC and the EPRC Challenge Cup.

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