Malcolm and Denis Interview
By Niall Brew
There’s excitement in the cold November air as the training fields and changing rooms empty, and the last preparations are made for the clubs big night saluting their former heroes. Of the many famous faces that stare down from the walls around St Mary’s RFC, two that would stand out for their achievements on the world stage are Malcolm O’Kelly and Denis Hickie.
For them, St Mary’s RFC is always a welcoming home. Indeed it would be easy for outsiders to think these former Irish international stars were only occasional passer bys to St Mary’s RFC these days, but as Malcolm O’Kelly quickly points out his most recent visit was only a week ago. It was the perfect occasion for St Mary’s to give something back to two men who played for St Mary’s at a time when the AIL was at its strongest and Irish rugby’s golden generation was still in its infancy, playing regularly in the league. For St Mary’s most famous sons, the dinner held on the first of December represented a great occasion to catch up with old friends, coaches and team mates as well as recount a few old war stories from their time in blue and their careers in general, a walk down rugby’s memory lane.
“My earliest memories, were when I was uphere as a kid. My dad was involved and it was one of the things we used to do on a Saturday, come up and hang out and get up to a little mischief”, recalls Hickie. “Well funnily enough the first time I was up here was for an underage disco, an under 18 disco”, O’Kelly says. “How old were you at the time Mal?” , Denis chirps in. “ A very tall eleven year old”, laughs O’Kelly. It’s easy to see the natural friendship these two men share, something moulded early on from their St. Mary’s club days.
“This club has been great for me, it gave me know how and a belief to play at the highest level. I owe a big debt to this club, so when they asked me to come here with Denis, it was a great honour for me,” says O’Kelly. Hickie readily agrees. “Its great to be here tonight but it brings home how much you miss it I suppose. You miss the big games and there has been some big games for both Leinster and of course St.Mary’s, like the AIL final and the semi final last year.”
The big crowd gathered in anticipation in the St Mary’s clubhouse shows how much these two men are thought of. There may be many reasons for this, former lions, former internationals, the fact that they are genuinely decent blokes, yet one important action links them inextricably, they were vital members of St Mary’s and Leinster’s first AIL winning team in 2000. A famous win, that remains a holy grail for every subsequent team in the club.
“Obviously the AIL has changed a lot, but at the time we were playing it was the biggest club competition and also where most of the biggest games were played below international level. We just had avery good side, a lot of internationals and there was a great buzz to the side. Playing with guys of such quality made it a really enjoyable time”, says Hickie. “Well it was my first year back from England,” saids O’Kelly smiling, “maybe that had something to do with winning it. No like Denis said, it was agreat time and we had great players like Trevor Brennan and Victor Costello. It was very significant in a way because following that we didn’t really play a lot of rugby with St. Mary’s again. But it wasn’t about the stars, it was about the graft, we had to graft out the victories. I remember some of the other days as well, when we were coached by Ciaran Fitzgerald and some of his team talks, they were absolutely inspiring. I just enjoyed playing for the club with passion the same as I did when I played for Ireland and Leinster.”
The AIL has changed since those early halcyon days, but is still full of quality as anyone who watched St.Mary’s most recent victory over Clontarf will tell you, where both sides produced some outstanding rugby and commitment to the club game. Hickie quickly agrees that the club game still has a role to play in devolping young talent. “I think you only need to ask a guy like Jonny Sexton, who three or four years ago wasn’t getting his game for Leinster and he turned to Mary’s to give him a game weekin, week out. That’s how he worked his way back into the Leinster side, throughhis performances for Mary’s. At thetime, the game was in transition, still a new professional sport in Ireland and the structures became defined, professional with the AIL below and of course it will keep changing. Leinster has obviously taken on a new dimension in recent years but hopefully its settled now and the AIL can once again be a proving ground for players.”
Among the many faces celebrating the two lads achievements were former teammates and coaches. Former Ireland captain and St.Mary’s coach Ciaran Fitzgerald has fond memories of a young raw and leggy second row from Templelogue. “I had the privilege of being the coach when Malcolm got his first cap for the senior team and I remember asking him, we were playing Belvedere and Malcolm was a 19 year old gazelle, but the question was would we put him in against Belvedere. I asked him in the dressing room, would he feel up to playing? His only concern was whether Franno was playing for Belvo? When I said yes, Mal said I’m going to play. He was that competitive, which I think a lot of people under estimated, because he looked laid back but he was a fantastic athlete and a fantastic servant for St. Marys and for Leinster and Ireland”.
Shane Horgan and Gordan D’Arcy know the two men better than most and the two Leinster players were happy to be part of a special occasion. “Tonight is a great occasion, it kind of marks the end of an era in a sense, and I suppose it means we both know we can’t be too far behind them. I came into Leinster about 1999 and Mal was there, you wouldn’t call him the worlds most dedicated athlete but he was just so good at his job and such a good guy off the field. It’s a shame to see him go to be honest. And Denis was a perfectionist and a guy I looked up to. I always wanted to be as professional as him. Both guys were the elder statesmens when I was a kid coming in. And subsequently Leinster have won things when they were gone, but a huge amount of the foundations were laid with Denis and Malcolm at the coal face, making them.”
Horgan remembers a back three colleague that was a world star when he broke in. “I was just so happy to get into the team with him but he was so generous with advice and inspirational off the field as well as on it. We developed a relationship and he’s like an older brother to me. I’m really thankful to everything he gave to me in my career. Its good to see him here tonight with Mal, who was a cornerstone of any team he played in. Like Darce said the wins and ethos of Leinster were made on the backs of Mal and Denis. And I’ll always treasure the memories of playing with them both.”
The lights are dimmed and the crowd at St. Mary’s stand and cheer their fellow clubmen as they walk into the room, memories and old friends reuniting not only for the end of an era but celebrating two men and their legacy, one that will continue to be built upon for St. Mary’s and Leinster in future triumphs.
For Photos CLICK HERE