THOUGH Richard Cockerill’s revamping of Edinburgh remains very much in its infancy, already there are those who like what they see.
A man of no little ferocity, Cockerill was never likely to banish the brutish bedrock of Edinburgh’s game plan under his predecessor. But he has, so far, done away with its sluggishness, its tedium, and laced that long-standing belligerence with attacking vigour.
Adding glitz to the grunt is what caught the eye of Simon Hickey, the former New Zealand Under-20 fly-half currently at Bordeaux-Begles, who will join the club on a two-year deal next season.
Piloting the old Edinburgh would jar rather violently with the instincts of a Kiwi pivot, but the 24-year-old’s signature is an encouraging indication that things are changing.
“Before I signed, I wanted to know what sort of club I was going to,” Hickey told The Offside Line. “I watched a lot of the games and I was impressed with what I saw, the style of play, and Richard told me they’re trying to play a more expansive style than they probably had in previous years.
“And when I watched replays of games, I could see that in the play. That made it a good decision because as a Kiwi 10, I didn’t really want to go to a team that was just a kicking and mauling sort of a team.
“I wanted to go somewhere where they enjoyed throwing the ball around and I think Edinburgh’s trying to do that this year and they’ve had some success with it too. That helped with my decision.”
You might wonder why as stand-off with Hickey’s CV is plying his trade in Europe – let alone Scotland – at all, rather than pressing his case in Super Rugby, or even chasing the storied black jersey itself.
Lithe, deft, and incisive, Hickey was playing Mitre Cup rugby with Auckland soon after leaving school, then kicked 15 points on debut for the Blues in a thunderous triumph over the Crusaders.
Throughout 2014 and 2015, he racked up 16 Super Rugby appearances, but when Tana Umaga took charge a year later, Hickey found himself out of contract and out in the cold.
Auckland’s current academy manager, Ben Meyer, a former scrum-half who played a couple of seasons at Edonburgh between 2007 and 2009, has aired his frustrations in the New Zealand media at the way the player was managed – thrust forth a touch too soon, then spat out when it became apparent he wasn’t the finished article.
“Looking back on it, I probably agree with that,” he says of Meyer’s assessment. “At the time, I was absolutely stoked to get a crack playing Super Rugby and I wouldn’t change that. But I think I was probably thrown in there when I wasn’t quite ready for it, and I got some perceptions made of the type of player that I was.
“I got labelled with that and then they weren’t interested, which was disappointing, because I felt like I still had a lot of developing to do.
“It was disappointing to be pretty much let go by the Blues when I was 20 years old. I felt like I had a lot more to offer with a couple more years of development.
“But it’s the nature of rugby sometimes. While that Blues experience didn’t go too well for me, it also enabled me to do a lot of things.
“This French contract came up, and I think I’ve learned a lot from it too. While it was disappointing to be let go, it taught me a lot and it is a good experience to have had.”
Over two years on from his stinging Blues exit, Hickey rejects the notion that he has a point to prove to those who deemed him surplus to requirements.
This is his third season in France – a voyage, he believes, has steeled him as a person and round his skill-set as a rugby player. Now, he feels ready to freshen things up again – not to mention immerse himself in a backline with whom he shares a first language.
“Leaving New Zealand, I was really nervous, coming a long way from home by myself,” Hickey admits. “But I’ve really enjoyed the experience, and as a rugby player, I think it’s been really good for me, because it’s made me grow my game.
“In New Zealand it’s always attacking mind-set, running is your first thought, but in France, in the winter months, the style of rugby they play has really made me develop my kicking game and think more about that. I think it’s probably grown my game for the better.
“It was a bit of a culture shock, and took some adapting. In my first year here, there were times where I got a little bit lonely because it’s a long way from home and a lot different, but overall it’s been a great experience. I’m really happy I did it.
“This is my third season in France so I think I’m ready for a change. Going to an English-speaking country was probably one of the biggest attractions.
“I only speak limited French, so it allows me as a first-five to have a bit more impact on the team.
“For me, [Edinburgh] just seems like a club that’s going in a good direction. They’ve had a relatively successful start to the season so I was keen to get on board with it.”
Hickey had the second best points average in the French Top 14 this season (12.6 points per match) before suffering ligament damage in his knee in November. He is expected to make his comeback from that injury in the next few weeks.