Hickie embellishes family tradition


DENIS HICKIE, the St Mary's College Wing, yesterday got the biggest and best 21st birthday present when he was told he will win his first senior cap against Wales in Cardiff on Saturday.

Hickie, a UCD Commerce student who turns 21 on February 13th, comes in on the right wing for James Topping (Ballymena), who has been ruled out by flu.

Topping was one of three players under treatment for flu: second rows Paddy Johns and Jeremy Davidson did not train yesterday. But the team manager, Pat Whelan, said last night they would train today and should be fit for the match.

Whelan added: "The doctor said that there is no way that James Topping would be fit. In those circumstances we have called in Denis Hickie and we have every confidence in him."

"I am absolutely delighted and very surprised to be playing, even if the circumstances are unfortunate in that Jim Topping has had to withdraw," said Hickie last night. "It is a tremendous challenge but also a great opportunity and honour.

"I suppose every Irish player would like to make an international debut in Lansdowne Road, but playing in Wales does not worry me, I am just delighted to be getting the opportunity to play," he said.

The withdrawal of Topping, who made his international debut against Western Samoa in October, is the second change the selectors have had to make in the team announced last Sunday. Hooker Allen Clarke was ruled out on Monday because of broken bone in his left hand. His replacement is also a new cap, 27-year-old New Zealander Ross Nesdale.

Hickie's place in the Ireland A team to meet Wales A in Pontypridd on Friday night is taken by Jan Cunningham (Dublin University). And the selectors have had to make a second alteration on the A side, as centre Brian Walsh (Cork Constitution) had to withdraw with a leg injury. His place in the centre goes to Alan Reddan (Lansdowne). Reddan came on as a replacement in the A team against France, while Cunningham also won an A cap as a temporary replacement against South Africa A.

Meanwhile Wales, too, have had to make a change in their side as centre Allan Bateman (Richmond) yesterday had to cry off because of a knee ligament injury. He is replaced by Gareth Thomas (Bridgend), who moves in from the left wing; the wing berth goes to Daffyd James (Bridgend). He will thus be marking Hickie a renewal of old rivalry when the Ireland Under-21 team defeated Wales to win the Triple Crown in Wicklow last season.

Hickie has had an outstanding career to date. While a student at St Mary's College he captained the side to win the Leinster Schools Senior Cup in 1993. That year he was also a member of the Ireland schools team that won the Triple Crown.

This year, he did not play against France for the under-21 team (though he is still eligible at that level), as the same day, last Friday week, he won his first A cap.

His achievements have embellished a great family tradition. His father, Tony, was an outstanding full back with UCD and St Mary's College and was on the Irish Universities team that defeated the Springboks in Thomond Park in 1965. He also played for Leinster and in final Irish trials, but failed to win a cap and was considered extremely unlucky not to have done so.

But Hickie's uncle and namesake Denis was capped for Ireland six times in 1971 and 1972 in the back row.

There was encouraging news yesterday concerning out-half Eric Elwood. He has been troubled by a hamstring injury. He was able to train yesterday with the squad at the University of Limerick grounds and the indications are that he will be fit. It had been stated on Monday that a decision on Elwood would be made today.

In addition to Bateman's withdrawal, the Welsh have other injury problems. Scrum-half Robert Howley is under treatment for a shoulder injury, but coach Kevin Bowring said yesterday it is improving. Team captain and hookers John Humphreys, also troubled by a shoulder injury, number eight Scott Quinnell (toe) and prop David Young (flu) have also had their training restricted.

Ulster senior interprovincial Sheldon Coulter will win his first under-21 cap against Wales in Bridgend on Friday afternoon. He is chosen in the centre in a side that shows two changes in personnel and a positional switch from the side that lost to France a fortnight ago. Coulter comes in for Gareth Gannon. Rory Sheriff is named in the second row with John Gardiner moving to the back row for David Watt.

As the countries have been hit by injuries, even the referees have not escaped. Scott Young (Australia), who was due to referee the match on Saturday, has had to withdraw because of a knee injury. He is replaced by compatriot Wayne Erickson.