Hickie aims to heal Springbok scar

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If it is a big game for Ireland against South Africa at Lansdowne Road tomorrow, it is probably an even bigger one for Denis Hickie. The right wing is determined to prove that the scars sustained during Ireland's tour of South Africa three summers ago have disappeared.

If it is a big game for Ireland against South Africa at Lansdowne Road tomorrow, it is probably an even bigger one for Denis Hickie. The right wing is determined to prove that the scars sustained during Ireland's tour of South Africa three summers ago have disappeared.

Hickie's recollections of that near-nightmare experience on South African soil in 1998 bordered on the traumatic. In the first of their two Tests against the Springboks, Hickie's opposite number, Stefan Terblanche - who was making his debut - scored four tries.

The 24-year-old could not be faulted for two of these, but such was Ireland's rugby climate at the time that anyone offered as a scapegoat or sacrificial lamb was readily burned. Worse was to follow. In the second Test in Pretoria, a heroic Hickie tackle ended with the St Mary's winger lying sprawled on the ground, his cheekbone smashed. It was the classic example of a foe rubbing salt into the wound, albeit accidentally. The player Hickie so courageously tackled that afternoon was none other than his first Test tormentor, Terblanche.

The after-effects of these two games were devastating. It took almost two years for the complete rehabilitation of the former schoolboy sprint champion. And the following year, with his cheekbone healed, Hickie suffered back problems.

A happier Hickie has now scored eight Test tries, three of them against Japan last week.

Tomorrow, the capacity Lansdowne Road crowd will be pounding on heaven's door for an Irish victory. After all, it is 35 years since Ireland beat the Springboks. The Irish have some scores to settle as well. They were not only badly beaten in South Africa two years ago, but they claim to have been shabbily treated by their hosts, none more so than their captain tomorrow, Keith Wood.

The Irish could be catching the Springboks at a vulnerable time. The South Africans recently completed a long, hard season and the insistence of their new coach, Harry Viljoen, to adopt a ball-in-hand policy is clearly a risk. The tactic imposes extraordinary physical demands on the players. And when opponents realise that they do not have to retreat against the kick ahead, they can lie up flat in defence in numbers.

Viljoen's predecessor, Nick Mallett, highlights the point. "Using the ball-in-hand strategy against Argentina last week was attractive and effective. But against better sides more variety is needed."

But who is to say Ireland are better than Argentina? They certainly were not in recent clashes, notably last year's World Cup and their coach, Warren Gatland, has made four changes from the side which trounced Japan 78-9 last week.

Girvan Dempsey returns to full-back after an indifferent display by Geordan Murphy last Saturday. Rob Henderson, who replaced Shane Horgan in that game, retains one of the centre roles, Gary Longwell deposes Ulster second row partner Paddy Johns and Eric Miller is preferred to Andy Ward.

IRELAND: G Dempsey (Terenure); D Hickie (St Mary's), B O'Driscoll (Blackrock), R Henderson (Wasps), T Howe (Dungannon); R O'Gara (Cork Con), P Stringer (Shannon); P Clohessy (Young Munster), K Wood (Harlequins), J Hayes (Shannon), G Longwell (Ballymena), M O'Kelly (St Mary's), E Miller (Terenure), K Dawson (London Irish), A Foley (Shannon).

SOUTH AFRICA: T Delport (Golden Lions); C Williams (Lions), G Esterhuizen (Lions), R Fleck (W Province), P Rossouw (W Province); P Montgomery (W Province), J van der Westhuizen (Blue Bulls); R Kempson (W Province), J Smith (Natal), W Meyer (Lions), C Krige (W Province), A van der Berg (Natal), M Andrews (Natal), A Venter (Free State), A Vos (Lions, capt).

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