Hickie warns English clubs

Don’t expect any respect

Hickie is out of action for at least six months although he is making good progress following his heart-breaking Achilles tendon injury sustained against Australia and has given an absolute seal of approval to England's eventual victory in the tournament.

"England have been the best team in the world in the last couple of years at least and are now worthy World champions, but that doesn't really make their clubs any better than we are in Ireland, or those in France, Wales or Scotland.

"The Heineken Cup is a huge competition and a lot of good clubs in England, France, Ireland, Wales and Scotland will battle it out over the next couple of months.

"I won't be involved, unless hopefully we are in the latter stages, but things have changed over the last few years. English and French teams did seem to have a head start in terms of fitness and professionalism. That's all changed now."

Hickie however was glad that England finally made the major breakthrough for the northern hemisphere in the code's greatest showpiece.

"It's a lot better for rugby that they've won. If Australia had won, we would have been listening to the fact that southern hemisphere rugby is the only way to go. I don't believe that. There are ways we can learn from one another, sure, but I also think they (southern hemisphere sides) can also learn from the way we have tried successfully at this stage to progress at this side of the world.

"England have been to the forefront of that effort. I don't personally have any problem with England winning the World Cup.

"We in Ireland worked really hard to get where we are but I know England worked equally as hard to come through as they did. A World Cup is not an easy thing to win; there is a huge effort behind the scenes and, sure, a bit of luck attached to the whole thing. But let's give full credit to where credit is due. They were worthy champions."

Hickie was just one of a number of stars rolled out to herald the start of a new Heineken Cup campaign in Dublin yesterday. Fittingly, the backdrop was Lansdowne Road, the scene of Toulouse's final triumph over Perpignan last season.

ERC Chief Executive Derek McGrath spoke enthusiastically of the change in format this year; teams will be rewarded with bonus points, for scoring four or more tries or, for the vanquished, those who finish within seven points of the winners.

Equally, he is happy with the fact that more matches than ever before will be televised live, a number of them on different stations at the same time. "That is progress. That's what we have been trying to achieve in recent years and I am happy to say that it is going to happen this year."

Also present were Heineken representative Pat Maher, Ulster Chief Executive Michael Reid and his Munster counterpart Garrett Fitzgerald.

Leinster coach Gary Ella was also in attendance alongside his players, Hickie and captain Reggie Corrigan, Ulster's Paddy Wallace and Munster's David Pusey and Denis Leamy. Munster's opening fixture is away to Bourgoin and it may take until after that for the 'best supporters in the land' to whip up pre-Christmas fervour for the match against Treviso at Thomond Park.

Leinster Lions begin their campaign on Saturday week against Biarritz at Lansdowne Road and confidence is high enough from their perspective to have made the switch from their spiritual home in Donnybrook.

Both Hickie and Corrigan, pressed on the subject yesterday, admitted it was a wrench for the players to have to move a small distance away, but that ultimately it was a good decision.

"It's all about the spread of the game and an opportunity for more people than ever to watch rugby in Dublin," said Hickie. Ulster may not be happy about having to play a Sunday game at Ravenhill on January 11 against Leicester, but Reid, admitting negotiations took place with security forces and Church leaders, was conscious tradition doesn't count for everything these days.

The match is being covered live on Sky television, and he who pays the piper does call the tune! There has been much less fusslocal furore about Ulster taking on Gwent Dragons in Wales in their opening match on Sunday week next.

Anthony Horgan is the latest Munster casualty. Horgan and John Kelly, just back from Ireland's World Cup tour to Australia, have been withdrawn from the side meeting Cardiff at Musgrave Park tomorrow evening.

But while the two wingers were omitted, it does appear the biggest worry ahead of the Heineken Cup opener next weekend surrounds Horgan who strained a hamstring in training yesterday.

Kelly has an Achilles tendon strain but it is not considered serious.

Mossie Lawlor and Shaun Payne have been named as their replacements with Martin McPhail and Dominic Crotty elevated to the bench.

The reserves will be chosen from a list of 9 players, including Rob Henderson, back after a bicep operation.

MUNSTER v Cardiff Blues: J. Staunton, M. Lawlor, M. Mullins, J. Holland, S. Payne, R. O'Gara, P. Stringer, M. Horan, F. Sheahan, J. Hayes, D. O'Callaghan, P. O'Connell, J. Williams (capt), A. Foley, D. Wallace.

Replacements from; R. Henderson, E. Reddan, M. McPhail, D. Crotty, S. Keogh, C. McMahon, T. Hogan, J. Flannery, S. Kerr.

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