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Old dog, new tricks

Saturday, 28th April, 2018

New North coach Robert Hickey addresses the team during the Lightning Cup. PICTURE: Tyler Hannigan New North coach Robert Hickey addresses the team during the Lightning Cup. PICTURE: Tyler Hannigan

By Tyler Hannigan

Robert Hickey has returned to his old club to coach the seniors in 2018.

With North’s League side failing to get out of first gear for much of 2017 before ultimately being well-beaten by South in the grand final, coach Chris Jones stepped down and the club started the search for a new head honcho. 

A number of candidates put their hand up including ex-players and former coaches but from afar one got the feeling that the Bulldogs were not going to go with another rookie coach after Jones took over from club great and multiple premiership coach David Ruddock.

North are also generally unwilling to go with an outsider, preferring to go with someone with ties to the club.

And so when Hickey was announced as coach it made sense. Here’s a former premiership coach who spent five years at the helm of an A Grade side and who is also a past player of the Bulldogs.

The decision ticked all the boxes for the club and for Hickey, too.

“With myself coming back to the club that I played with, it’s felt like I’ve never left,” Hickey admitted.

Whether it proves to be the right decision is too early to say but what cannot be denied is how much work Hickey has already done to bridge the gap to South with new players coming in and former players returning.

“I went hard in recruiting when I was at South too,” Hickey admitted.

“Often you’ll make 100 phone calls and get one good response but this year I was very lucky in that for every 10 calls that I made I got a positive response from someone.

“We’ve got six or seven new blokes to the club. It gives the existing players a boost with some fresh faces and they’ve all fitted in so well.”

Hickey played over 200 senior games for the North Bulldogs as a scrappy defender and occasional midfielder. He admits that he wasn’t always the favourite player of the opposition or umpires but his competitiveness cannot be questioned.

After retirement Hickey moved into coaching but not for North. Instead he crossed the slag heap into rival territory to be South’s head coach from 2009 to 2013. He tasted the ultimate success early with the 2009 premiership and South never missed the grand final under his watch.

He was criticised, perhaps unfairly, for not winning more flags with what many considered to be a very gifted South team that had a plethora of young stars including Jordan Johns, Marc Purcell and Cody Schorn.

A Hickey-led South suffered grand final defeat to an incredibly talented Central side in 2010 and then three straight losses to a hardened and experienced North in 2011, 2012 and 2013 after which Craig Thomas took over as coach.

Thomas proceeded to win premierships in 2014, 2015 and again last year after having 2016 off.

After a short break from the game, Hickey returned to the field this time as umpire for the 2017 season. Well-respected by players, coaches and supporters, he was one of the umpiring standouts through the season first in reserves before being moved into the league. 

Hickey’s first assignment is today, fittingly against the side he coached and against the coach that was his assistant.

“They’re (South) a different side now and Thommo (Craig Thomas) coaches differently to the way I coach,” Hickey said.

“He was my assistant at South about five years ago but he’s changed a lot and so has the playing group. The kids that were playing for me are grown men now. They’re very strong and strong in the contest.

“So we’ve been trying to build up our player’s strength through the preseason plus get a lot fitter. South are still very much the yard stick in town and we’ll see how we match up in round one but we think we’ll be around the mark.”

Hickey admits that he sets high standards and has been pleased with how the playing group has met them but said there will be some tough decisions along the way.

“We’re positive, we’ve been enthusiastic through the whole preseason,” Hickey said.

“We’ve had 40 to 45 players on the track most nights. I expected a high standard from when I started and I’ve been given that by the group. 

“I’ve been impressed with how they’ve turned things around from last year where they looked like they weren’t enjoying their football. We want to enjoy our footy but we’re out there to win.”

“With those players that have come in, it puts more pressure onto those second and third-tier guys and shows them that they need to train and earn their spot. Come selection night we’ll have an issue with some of the players we’ll need to leave out,” Hickey added.

How Hickey fares as North coach is yet to be seen. His approach is sure to be simple and direct but North are a club that demands success. A year without a premiership for Broken Hill’s most successful club is seen as a failure. 

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