Irishman Points Way For Navy and U.S. Rugby
When the phone rang and Navy Rugby came calling in 2017, Gavin Hickie - the former pro rugby player with Leinster and a number of English clubs - knew he had to take the job. The decision to leave his coaching role at Dartmouth Rugby and come to Annapolis, Maryland to become the Director of Rugby at the United States Naval Academy provided Hickie with a different purpose and has proved transformative for his family. Hickie and wife, Jess, who also works at Navy, had their three children since moving to Maryland and it's clear they regard it as home. I spoke to him about life at Navy and the state of U.S. rugby.
Leadership First Rugby might not seem like an obvious game that the men and women of Naval Academy play, but it has flourished on Gavin Hickie’s watch. He’s effusive about its connection with the military. “Rugby is so well suited to help these young men and women become better leaders in the battlefield. Our purpose is teaching this country's next generation of leaders. The beauty of it is that we are doing this through rugby, which is a gift.”
For an outsider looking to settle into a leadership role at one of America’s top military establishments, Hickie admits it was a steep learning curve for someone without any military grounding on the traditions and norms which govern life in Annapolis. Naval Academy students are called Midshipmen, of which there are 4,400. Getting in the door is an intensely selective process and different to the path Hickie followed as a talented young professional rugby player in Ireland twenty years ago.
“You have to be an incredibly high academic achiever coming out of high school to get into Navy,” adds Hickie. “You need a nomination from your congressional representative or a Vice-Presidential nomination. If you get in, which is about a 10% acceptance rate, you get a highly regarded education. It is a free education which, by American standards, is something very valuable, but in return, you owe at least five years to military service after you commission into the Fleet.”
Within Navy’s busy athletics department, rugby co-exists with football, lacrosse and a plethora of other sports. Hickie succeeded Mick Flanagan as head coach of Navy. Flanagan set a terrific standard for 27 years and was inducted into the U.S. rugby Hall of Fame earlier this summer. Under Hickie, Navy went unbeaten in the 2022-23 season (18-0) and won the national championship. The success led to an invite from the Baltimore Ravens NFL team for Hickie and Navy rugby coaches to go to Baltimore and share intelligence on attack patterns and special teams plays.
The State of U.S. Rugby After fifteen years in the U.S., Hickie is well versed in identifying the cultural differences in playing styles and the adjustments necessary to advance rugby in America. Boys and girls in Ireland, and traditional rugby playing nations, are exposed to the game as young as six, which puts them at a distinct advantage. The onus on collisions and hard tackling are there, but as most U.S. high schoolers have little or no grounding in rugby into their late teens, the fundamentals of rugby (run, pass, catch) need to be nurtured rather than assumed. Hickie says he often sees his charges perform the basics well only to be let down by the nuance of a final pass in a two versus one situation with the tryline beckoning. The philosophy of running rugby needs to be reinforced, but with sound coaching his astute players ultimately get it. At Navy, continuous improvement is in their DNA.
Rugby has made strides in the U.S. in the last 15 years, but the national team failed to qualify for the 2023 World Cup in France this fall. Given his time as U.S. U20’s coach and having coached in all the regions, progress at the national and club level is a delicate subject for Hickie, who is well placed to prescribe medicine and offer a path forward.
“It bothers me that there’s often a mentality that they (U.S. Rugby) need to find a world class coach and suddenly the U.S. will be a much better rugby nation. That’s just not realistic. You need someone who understands the landscape. The country is so large that the West and East coasts are playing different seasons. From a governance and leadership standpoint, things need to improve but it is not all doom and gloom. The great white hope is that the 2031 Rugby World Cup - the first that the U.S. will host - will move everyone in the same direction. I think the Women’s World Cup in 2033 could be even bigger as it is one of the fastest growing sports in the world.”
“Ultimately, we’ll need to see real progress over the next decade by which I mean quantifiable growth until we can get to a World Cup. I get frustrated because my late Dad once said he’d been waiting for that sleeping giant that is U.S. rugby to wake up and that’s something that always inspired me. But I still have faith that things can work out.”
Pro Rugby Playing Days
Recalling his professional rugby days, Hickie details how three of his former clubs in England - Worcester, London Irish and Wasps - have all gone into administration this season and been suspended from the English Premiership for financial issues. He cherishes the time with his club and school, St Mary’s College, and professional rugby team, Leinster. He lights up when I tell him I was in Donnybrook, Dublin 4, watching one of his schoolboy games against Newbridge College in 1998, undoubtedly one of the best games of rugby I’ve witnessed at any level. “That was a brilliant match. I remember it well including Donal Campion’s 50 metre kick to win it as time ran out. I’m going back to Ireland next week and will meet up with one of my old friends who also played that day, Shane Jennings (formerly of Leinster and Ireland). That sense of community and camaraderie we had in school and that so many Irish rugby clubs have is special. When I look at schools in the US I wonder how people build meaningful friendships. People change schools so frequently. I’d love nothing more for my children to have a similar experience to what I had in Ireland. Those bonds are still important to me.”
On The Waterfront
Twenty years ago, Gavin Hickie and I were in the same final year history tutorial at University College Dublin. In 2003, he was balancing academics and playing for Leinster rugby in a similar fashion to the many young men and women he now coaches at Navy. It’s the first time we’ve seen each other since then. Having both grown up in Ireland, conversation turns to a mutual love of the seaside and water - he was a long way from the water in New Hampshire, while I bemoan being five hours from the ocean living in Atlanta.
“Annapolis is tiny but a wonderful location. Growing up in Dublin you take living on the water for granted. We didn’t have it when I coached in Dartmouth in New Hampshire and I really missed it, but we have it again. I’m not a seafaring person in any shape or form but there’s something magic about it. I love it here and want to be here for the long run.”
Life has been kind to the Hickie family since moving here, something he’s immensely grateful for. Gavin Hickie is seven years into his tenure here at Navy and his passion for the job at hand is undiminished. The former pro rugby player in Europe has a pivotal role to play in the direction of rugby in the U.S. and is desperate for it to succeed. When he returns with Navy to Dublin to play Notre Dame next week - coinciding with the same teams meeting to kick start the college football season - all his Irish family and friends will see firsthand the impact he’s making on U.S. rugby.