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The ex-AFL prospect who is thriving in debut season for Highlanders

He’s taken a road less traveled than most Super Rugby Pacific players, but Max Hicks is relishing his debut campaign with the Highlanders.

The 22-year-old lock made his professional rugby debut earlier this month when he featured off the bench in what was his side’s first win of the year when they beat Moana Pasifika at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin.

The following week, Hicks crossed for his first-ever Super Rugby Pacific try in a defeat to the Hurricanes, and was picked for a third match running in last week’s Super Round loss to the Brumbies in Melbourne.

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All of this has come thick and fast for the youngster, who was forced to wait eight rounds before making his maiden appearance at this level.

It could have been a lot different, though, had Hicks, a New Zealand age-grade representative in Australian football, opted to instead pursue a career in the AFL.

During his time as a student at Rosmini College on Auckland’s North Shore in 2018, Hicks was selected to play for a New Zealand U18 team in one of rugby’s rival football codes.

That led to opportunities across the Tasman, where he spent time with Melbourne-based AFL club St Kilda before ultimately deciding to commit to a career in rugby.

While it’s been some time since he tucked the Sherrin away for good, some of Hicks’ old Aussie rules habits have proven difficult to boot since coming onboard with the Highlanders.

“Not yet,” Hicks said on Tuesday when asked whether he brings an Australian football out at Highlanders training. “I still like to kick the old rugby ball at captain’s run, but that’s about it these days.”

Since shunning a prospective career in the AFL to try his hand in professional rugby, Hicks relocated from Auckland to Nelson three years ago, making his NPC debut for Tasman last season.

After only seven games in his debut campaign for the Mako, the former Blues U18 and U20 representative was a surprise selection in this year’s Highlanders squad.

Things haven’t transpired as smoothly as Hicks and the Highlanders would have hoped for in 2022, as they sit in 10th place with just one win from nine matches and four points astray from a playoff spot.

Nevertheless, Hicks is taking everything in his stride, enjoying his first taste of professionalism as a Super Rugby Pacific player.

“It’s pretty awesome. Quite overwhelming sometimes, but I guess I just fit in with the crowd, with the boys, and stay in the middle of the pack,” the 1.99m, 112kg second rower said.

“Not so much overwhelming, maybe it was the wrong word, but just things I haven’t really experienced before like crowds and the fans and stuff. That’s probably more different.”

Although the Highlanders find themselves in a rut at present, Hicks remains optimistic about how his experiences with the team this year will put him in good stead for the future.

“I don’t think results really matter for someone like me. I’m just getting all the experience and soaking up as much knowledge and stuff as I can,” he said.

“Obviously we want to be winning and we’re not too far away in the games that we’re losing, but I’m just really soaking up all the experiences I can every week.”

According to Highlanders assistant coach Clarke Dermody, a key reason as to why the Highlanders are struggling to clinch victories week-to-week is because of their slow starts to matches.

He said they can’t afford to enable the Fijian Drua, who host the Highlanders in what will be their first home match in Suva on Saturday after being based in Australia this season, to get on the front foot early this weekend.

“Our job is to always look at the positives for our boys, and we do see the team getting better in areas. One area we’ve talked about is the start of the game this week. It’s sort of hurt us in the last two or three [matches],” Dermody said.

“We end up in games, but we leave ourselves with too much to do in the second half. I feel like our game is good enough to beat these teams, but we’re potentially not quite starting well enough.

“Ultimately, I think it’s individual preparation. Certainly there’s things we can do through the week to help that, so it’s something that’s been addressed.

“This week, we’re in a short week in Fiji, a pretty hostile place to come and play, and we know it’s going to be a huge challenge.

“Obviously the one and only [home] game for the Fijian Drua, who played really well against the Blues, so we understand that we don’t want to give them a head start this week.”

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