How La Rochelle took David Hickey to its heart

Three-time All-Ireland winning Dublin footballer became French club’s first foreign player in 1980

La Rochelle may have a fair sprinkling of top-level foreign players in their ranks nowadays but back in 1977 they held a vote to decide whether they would allow All Blacks legend Graham Mourie to join the club. Almost unanimously, they voted against.

But three years later, the three-time Dublin All-Ireland winner, David Hickey, became their first foreign player.

Critically, Jacques Larroze, the owner of a local fishing company and a former fullback, had become the club's new president.

"He was more liberal and more interested in changing the image of La Rochelle," explains Richard Escot, a long-standing rugby writer with L'Équipe who hails from La Rochelle.


Larroze enlisted the French TV commentator Pierre Salviac to help find their first foreigner. He contacted Ollie Campbell, who in turn contacted a team-mate on Belvedere's 1972 Leinster Schools Senior Cup winning team, Michael Hickey, who in turn mentioned it to his older brother David, then a medical student.

Hickey had subscribed to the monthly French rugby journal Miroir du Rugby.

"I loved French rugby in the 60s and 70s and it's nice to see Fabien Galthie bringing French rugby back in that direction because it had been appalling to watch for the last 10 or 15 years."

Hickey had played with Clontarf and UCD previously, and Dublin's run of six successive All-Ireland finals under Kevin Heffernan had come to an end with defeat by Offaly in the Leinster Championship. La Rochelle also found him work in a local hospital for the first year and in Bordeaux for his second season.

“I had the advantage of being very fit moving into their pre-season and the rest is history. Everyone had very long memories and they never forgot an injustice or an injury, so it was pretty violent, just like playing Gaelic football, so I felt very at home,” he says laughing.

“You could have a 30-point win at home one weekend and the next weekend you could lose by the same amount. The referees gave the away teams nothing.”

As a fullback he also had full licence to counterattack.

Although he will support La Rochelle in the Heineken Champions Cup final at Twickenham on Saturday (kick-off 4.45pm and live on Virgin Media, Channel 4 and BT Sport) he has a fondness for Toulouse dating back to a 9-9 draw against Jean-Pierre Rives et al in the Yves du Manoir tournament in 1981.

“Toulouse were always a superior club in that they never resorted to violence, almost uniquely. Our own boys were rough enough but if you played down in Toulon, Carcassone or Aurillac, it could be frightening.

“But then the meal after the match was a huge event and the players were experts in the different wines in the different regions, and they’d talk for hours about the foie gras.

“If I hadn’t been a medical graduate I would have stayed in France and run a bar or a restaurant or a gym, something like that, and lived happily ever after. Maybe it’s not too late.”

On returning to Ireland he was placed in Waterford, and played for a year with Waterpark where his father Patrick had played.

To mark Hickey's farewell, La Rochelle hosted a Clontarf side featuring three Irish international guests, the aforementioned Campbell, Donal Spring and Terry Kennedy, in May 1982.

Clontarf won and the next day they took part in an eight-a-side tournament on the island of Île de Ré.

“As you can imagine we weren’t exactly in great shape for it,” recalls Spring. “Having been hammered in the pool stages by the La Rochelle ‘B’ the playoffs were late enough in the afternoon to have recovered and we managed to beat the ‘A’ team in the semi-final and the ‘B’ team in the final with Terry Kennedy getting man of the match.

“The players all got a box of oysters as their prize which we duly gave away to people in the crowd and then got the boat back to La Rochelle and had another good evening,” says Spring, who played for the next two seasons with Bagnéres after qualifying as a solicitor.

He describes Hickey as a great rugby player.

“He was just a very good footballer, very strong and had all the skills. He was very highly spoken of in La Rochelle and very popular. In France, as a foreign player, you’re either fully accepted or you’re rejected, there’s no half-way house.”

Escot concurs. “When you say the name of David Hickey in La Rochelle everybody has a smile and a good story about him.”

Ex team-mates even formed a Celtic Club in Châtelaillon, a seaport town just south of La Rochelle.

“It celebrates celtic culture in the local area, dance, music, rugby and Guinness, and also Gaelic football,” says Escot.

Four years ago, several of them visited Dublin for the All-Ireland final, when Dublin drew with Mayo, Hickey acting as ticket provider and host.

As one of the world’s leading transplant surgeons, Hickey’s work has also taken him to Bahrain, Sudan, Egypt and latterly Dubai, but mostly to Cuba.

“I have been going there for about 25 years. My late wife was Cuban. I always admired them in the Olympics, their dignity and their sense of country. [Teófilo] Stevenson and these guys never took the big bucks in the United States,” Hickey says in reference to the famed triple Olympic gold medallist.

“We used to go for three months every year when my wife, Yamile, was alive. She was a neuro-surgeon and she worked there for three months every year.”

“When I went there I wasn’t disappointed on any level. The humanity of the place is enormous. They have alleviated poverty essentially. Nobody is rich but there’s nobody without a home, an education or health care.

“My mother-in-law is staying with me at the moment and what she misses most about Cuba is her free morning Tai Chi lessons in the local park. It’s actually a more developed society than America’s or our own one by default. It’s the fourth world rather than the third world, potentially the future for a lot of people I think.”

Hickey, who now works part-time in the Mater Hospital, has been helping his son David study for the Leaving Cert after what has been a tough year and a half. In January last year he and David flew back from Cuba and the night they returned home received a phone call from Havana to inform them that Yamile had died in a drowning accident, meaning a cruelly swift return the next day for her funeral.

Sport has been a welcome release for him during the various lockdowns and Hickey accepts he was probably the only Dubliner to support La Rochelle in the semi-final against Leinster. To his regret, he has only found time for one return visit to his old French club.

“I would love to have been in La Rochelle for that semi-final. I do intend this summer, if things open up, to drive down to La Rochelle with my young fella and meet up with the La Rochelle boys and the celtic club in Châtelaillon!”