Rugby tackles new frontiers with push into girls' schools

Wallaroos captain Ash Hewson grew up twirling and flicking a football in her sleep, the middle child in a family of seven from Jervis Bay.

At the tender age of four she learnt to tackle her three brothers in the backyard. For as long as she can remember she has relished the thud, thump and crunch of contact.

Hewson's grandfather played first-grade rugby union for Gordon on Sydney's north shore and her father played with the Australian Federal Police. Were it not for being born a girl, Hewson would have followed in their footsteps. But she was 30 years too early and had to give up contact sports when she turned 12.

Wallabies coach Michael Cheika with girls from St Clare's High School, Emily Broquet-Mouledous, Kylie Gallagher, Niamh McGivney and Eliza Abdul. Photo: Jessica Hromas

Wallabies coach Michael Cheika with girls from St Clare's High School, Emily Broquet-Mouledous, Kylie Gallagher, Niamh McGivney and Eliza Abdul. Photo: Jessica Hromas

The Australian Rugby Union is preparing to make a massive incursion into girls' schools across NSW and Queensland, and a host of high profile Australian leaders including former prime minister John Howard, Wallabies coach Michael Cheika, Microsoft Australia managing director Pip Marlow and former Virgin Australia boss Brett Godfrey are throwing their support behind the push.

"The women's game has grown organically here, and now the participation is starting to exceed the actual opportunities to play," Cheika said. "Recently I had friends of ours, whose girls play in a team, contact me to try to find them a field to train on, because they couldn't find any."

Hot on the heels of the Australian women's sevens team's inspiring gold medal win at the Rio Olympics, the ARU is beefing up its pathways to make sure it has a dog in the fight for the hearts and minds of talented young female athletes. The program is already being trialled in schools in Queensland, and now the Australian Rugby Foundation – using the pulling power of Howard, Godfrey, Cheika and others – is helping fund a further introduction in NSW.

"It's being done, not because they think it's [politically correct], but because they genuinely see the upside both in participation and in supporters," Cheika said. "You can see it spilling over into all parts of sport, [female participation] is absolutely normal. What wasn't normal was what was going on before, the male domain. That's not normal."

Ash Hewson agrees. Now a correctional officer at Long Bay prison, she made a decent fist of soccer, spending six years with the NSW Institute of Sport and as a Matildas squad member, though she was never capped for Australia. Eventually, she found her way back to contact sports, via 15-a-side rugby. After eight years with the Wallaroos she will captain them for the first time at Eden Park, in a Bledisloe Cup double header that will be broadcast live on Fox Sports.

And yet the 36-year-old will always wonder what might have been, had she not been forced to swap her beloved Steedens and Gilberts for a soccer ball.

"If I had that opportunity at primary school or high school, and all the girls in our side, god knows where we'd be," Hewson said.

"We'd be the team to beat, I'd imagine. That's why [the schools program] is so great to see. I went to a sevens tournament on the weekend and I played alongside a 17-year-old girl who was an absolute freak; her getting those opportunities to play with experienced players and come up through the ranks like that, is only going to benefit the game."

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