Simon Hickey will return to the French Top 14 soon after his Auckland Mitre 10 Cup commitments are concluded.

It is a vastly different rugby experience for the Auckland No 10 and skipper, who spent seven months at the Bordeaux-Begles club in 2015-16. He picked up some French, along with plenty of advice from the passionate fans, quick to remind him of 1969 and 1991, when the club won its two championships.

Bordeaux-Begles draws upwards of 25,000 fans to its Stade Chaban-Delmas, a far cry from the 4000-6000 who spread themselves out at Eden Park for Auckland's home fixtures.

There are worse places to live in the world than Bordeaux, especially if you enjoy a cheeky red wine.


Hickey loved it, helping the club to a top half table finish, which meant requalification for the lucrative European Champions Cup for 2016-17.

"I didn't know what to expect and had to work my way up the food chain. I think I learned a lot in different areas of the game. They play a different tactical game, which took a bit of adjusting to, but I was able to nail down the starting sport by the end of the season," he says.

There is a solid Kiwis contingent there - loose forwards Luke Braid, Hugh Chalmers and Peter Saili - and the whisper is another New Zealander will be soon joining the club. Otago threequarter Jayden Spence also appeared for Bordeaux-Begles, while Ole Avei and Wallaby Adam Ashley-Cooper are on the books.

"It's a good foreign contingent and that helped trying to learn the ways over there. Luke Braid was one of the standout players for the club and generally the other guys are making an impact," Hickey says.

There is a high powered coaching team of former Italy coach Jacques Brunel, former French stars Emile N'Tamack and Raphael Ibanez, aided by former England flanker Joe Worsley, who looks after defence, and 2000 All Black Bruce Reihana, who helps with skills and conditioning.

"Bruce is a nice guy to bounce ideas off. It's always easy talking to him. As a Kiwi, he understands what we're thinking."

Hickey has plenty of competition for the No 10 berth, with French international Lionel Beauxis joined by Irish pivot Ian Madigan this season.

Bordeaux-Begles will play Clermont (tomorrow morning, NZT) and they are mid-table, but with designs on moving up the log and giving Europe a bigger shake.

Hickey may be regarded as slightly unlucky to not be given more of a look-in at Super Rugby, after two seasons with the Blues, but he is on good money in France.

"I'm not an All Black, so I'm not on Dan Carter or Colin Slade sort of money, but it's a decent wicket."

And the club thinks he is decent enough for a two-year deal with an option for a third, meaning he will not be back in Auckland colours for 2017. With a longer-term plan, he intends to throw himself into French lessons with more gusto, sometimes a difficult task when half the team are foreigners.

He is more au fait with the French style of play and mentality now, but it did not come naturally.

"The thing I struggled to get my head around was that home games mean everything to them, but then they pick their away games. Sometimes they'll target it and try and get the points and others they'll throw out a bit of a B team. It took some adjusting, because in New Zealand you try and win every game, no matter where you are playing."

Ah, l'esprit du clocher, the nebulous idea that you win every game within the earshot of your local church clock tower bell, a peculiarly French concept which pragmatic Kiwis can only understand if fully immersed in the Gallic rugby culture.

In the dark winter months from December to February, it behoves the No 10 to stand a bit deeper in the pocket and kick the hell out of the pigskin. Hickey says he came into his own more towards the end of the season, when the weather was drier, the grounds harder and the attitudes freer.

The standard is hard to compare to New Zealand rugby, given the wide range of conditions and the 35+ matches in the French season, but Hickey offers this: "I'd say the standard sits somewhere between Mitre 10 Cup and Super Rugby, but some of the teams are stacked with international experience."

Hickey's Auckland form has been solid, goalkicking at 75 percent and taking the ball to the line more than usual. But he is leading a very young, green backline that has missed the likes of George Moala, Ben Lam, Bryce Heem and the injured pair of Lolagi Visinia and Melani Nanai.

"Against Waikato we were far too patchy and dug ourselves too much of a hole," says Hickey, the youngest Auckland captain in living memory when he was appointed last year at just 21.

"In general the boys have stepped up well, but it hasn't helped losing guys like Lagi and Melani."

He is happy enough with his own form, but he would sooner the team hit their straps for the duration of the match, starting tomorrow with Counties Manukau.

"They say defence wins championships and I don't think at the moment we are defending well enough to win a championship. The attacking game will naturally flow for an Auckland side."

*Live commentary of the Auckland v Counties Manukau match is on Radio Sport and iHeart Radio from 2.35pm on Sunday.