Sport

Wallaroo Ashleigh Hewson on how rugby union burned into her soul and why she’d love to get into coaching. By Richard Cooke.
Credit: SUPPLIED

Heart and soul: Ashleigh Hewson, 38, rugby player

You might not expect an international rugby player to be 38 years old and weigh 64 kilos. I’ve always been quite small, so I spent the majority of my childhood tackling my brothers, who were always a lot bigger than me. I had to learn to adjust with technique and work with the size that I had. In terms of my age, unfortunately that’s something that is a given and has to happen. I think my love for the game is what keeps me going and keeps me on the field.

The physical aspect of women’s rugby has changed dramatically. I’ve been playing for more than 10 years now, and when it’s a semi-professional environment, in terms of fitness and strength and conditioning and everything like that, it’s definitely noticeable in the field.

When I was a little bit younger, soccer was my game. I grew up in Jervis Bay. Basically the only three sports that were available were netball, soccer and rugby league. I played rugby league as a kid with my brothers and guys from school, and when I wasn’t allowed to play with the boys anymore, there was only soccer and netball.

Soccer took me a lot of places, and I was part of the wider Matildas squad in the lead-up to the 2000 Olympics. Unfortunately I missed out on that opportunity, and then found my love for rugby again.

The most transferable skill, and what assists me the most, is my kicking game. My place kicking is attributed to the fact I played soccer for so many years – the way I strike the ball and so forth.

The more games you play of any sport, the smarter you get. You can see things happen before they actually occur. I think the big difference in rugby is it’s a very team-orientated sport. That’s the reason why I love it so much. I’ve always played team sports from a young age, but the feeling you get with rugby and knowing that your teammates are always behind you – “we’ll get up for you and we’ll be in a ruck”. It creates that really strong bond between people.

My best friends are people I’ve played rugby with for that exact reason – camaraderie. Knowing that if you’re going into a situation that looks a bit hairy, your mates are going to be right there beside you, right there to save you, get the ball back and go again. It transfers into life as well. It’s a pretty special sport, that’s for sure.

The change in women’s sport came down to the success of our female teams within the country. Look at the success of the cricket girls, the success of the Matildas, making the semi-finals of the World Cup a few years ago. As soon as you have success… Australians because we love our sport so much, it’s very difficult not to get behind that. We always love to win, especially because we’re the underdog a little bit.

Part of the change is bittersweet. I could probably name about 100 girls who’d feel exactly the same. You know, I think there’s always that “What if? If only I was 10 years younger.” A couple of the older girls have actually had conversations about it, but I think what brings solace to us is the fact that we paved the way for these younger girls coming through. I’ve got girls in our squad who are 18, 19 years of age, and I can just see the love that they have for this game, exactly like I did when I first started playing. It’s only going to make it more successful.

The conversations were really emotional. We had Tui Ormsby, who’s been to four World Cups – she’s one of the highest-capped Wallaroos, and a really good friend of mine, someone who I’ve played against and played with, and someone I really respect – she came and gave our jerseys out, for the first round in the Super W. There were a few tears and a few laughs, as always.

A lot of the time with women, our passion is to play the game. We don’t play it as our jobs. People are mothers, people have careers, people do this purely and solely because they love sport, and that’s what Australians are all about.

For 10 years I was a prison officer at Long Bay correctional centre. That was a very exciting job. I’ve just recently changed my role to a welfare officer, so now I get to work with integrating offenders back into the community. I work with intellectually disabled inmates as well, so that can be quite challenging at times, but definitely very rewarding. It’s a really fulfilling job.

Coaching is very, very high on my radar. As soon as I take the boots off, I think I’ll be putting them straight back on and be on the training paddock as a coach. I’d find it very difficult not to be part of this sport, and if I can’t do it physically anymore, I’d love to be able to pass on any knowledge that I have to the younger girls coming through. Rugby just burns into your soul. As soon as you’re part of it, you can’t let go of it.

This week’s highlights…

Golf: The Players Championship

Until Monday, TPC Sawgrass Players Stadium Course, Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida

• AFL: Greater Western Sydney Giants v West Coast Eagles

Saturday, 1.45pm (AEST), Spotless Stadium, Sydney Olympic Park

Netball: Melbourne Vixens v Queensland Firebirds

Saturday, 3pm (AEST), Hisense Arena, Melbourne

• Rugby union: Super Rugby – ACT Brumbies v Melbourne Rebels

Saturday, 7.45pm (AEST), GIO Stadium, Canberra

NRL: South Sydney Rabbitohs v St George Illawarra Dragons

Sunday, 2pm (AEST), ANZ Stadium, Sydney

• Motorsport: F1 Spanish Grand Prix

Sunday, 11.10pm (AEST), Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 12, 2018 as "Heart and soul". Subscribe here.

Richard Cooke
is a journalist and writer for television. He is The Saturday Paper's sports editor.