Hickey humble and focused on Blues campaign
For a young man who might just be an answer to his franchise's prayers, Blues rookie Simon Hickey presents an incongruous image.
His coach reckons he might be "Cruden and Foxy all wrapped into one", and undoubtedly the 20-year-old first five-eighths has emerged already as the Blues' find of the season. By rights he should have a swagger that befits his status as the most exciting young No 10 to pull on the jersey since Carlos Spencer wandered north from Horowhenua.
Yet, here he is both humble and focused as he prepares to face the Highlanders in a pivotal Super Rugby clash at Eden Park on Saturday night. There's no sign those rave reviews have gone to his head.
Maybe there's a dash of Carter about the kid as well. There's certainly a grounded feel about him as he reflects on his fairytale season thus far.
That Hickey is a near certainty to run out at No 10, as the Blues look to avenge their opening round defeat in Dunedin, speaks volumes for how far he's come already.
He watched that season kickoff back home on his couch, a wider training squad member blissfully unaware of the turn of events about to come his way. Now, five games into the campaign, they're talking about him as the No 10 they've been searching for since Spencer sashayed away into the sunset.
Hickey started the season as fourth-choice No 10, behind the headline-grabbing Benji Marshall, journeyman Chris Noakes and Counties playmaker Baden Kerr.
But then the moons started aligning. Kerr picked up a hand injury. Marshall found the transition to rugby more challenging than he hoped. Finally, Noakes had a wobbly old outing in Dunedin.
Kirwan played a hunch in round two against the Crusaders in Auckland and Hickey delivered big time on debut, expertly guiding the Blues to a 35-24 victory after they'd trailed 17-3 early on.
He then played well in a defeat to the Bulls in Pretoria, was dropped to the bench for the Lions game, and returned to starting duty for last week's 40-30 home victory over the Cheetahs - slotting eight of nine kicks in another composed display.
"It's been a big surprise - I certainly wasn't expecting any time this early," Hickey says. "That first week I was pretty nervous, but after that I've just been trying to take every game as it comes, not take anything for granted, and not get ahead of myself.
"Anything can happen, so I just want to play to the best of my ability every game and take any opportunities that come."
That grounded approach is just part of the reason coach Sir John Kirwan has been so won over. "He's still working hard on his game but the composure he's got and the maturity he's showing is fantastic," says the coach. "He's keeping us in games with the accuracy of his boot and by driving the football team round."
Kirwan is conscious of allowing his No 10 to develop at his own pace: "He's at that age where you've just got to keep working on the little things, and he's doing that."
Veteran halfback Piri Weepu has been a natural mentor for the Grammar Carlton product after teaming with him for a standout provincial campaign last year.
"We have little chats out on the field, trying to think about things we might try," Weepu says. "It's a huge step up to Super Rugby, but he's tried to play the same way and it's worked for him. Against the Crusaders I told him, 'you just play footy bro, and we'll support you'. He's stuck to that well."
Hickey is conscious of playing down the hype, and of taking care of the basics. Yes, he realises he's got a great opportunity, but he's also well aware that his is a sport that takes as quickly as it gives.
"I've still got a lot of areas of my game I need to improve, and you're always learning about how to adapt to game situations. Different teams throw different things at you, so having the ability to change during a game is important."
He's small - 1.74m and 83kg - but says he's stronger than he looks, shying from neither tackles nor tacklers. He still uses older brother Jono as a kicking mentor, and says he's soaked up whatever he can from all his coaches along the way.
He also understands that sometimes his job is going to be to shift the ball as swiftly as he can: "There's plenty we can work on to unleash those guys a bit more but I think we're heading in the right direction."