Life after a fairytale finish: why Ash Hewson came back for more

Super W
by Iain Payten

As Ash Hewson put it at the time, kicking an extra-time goal to win a Super W Grand Final in 2018 was the stuff of girlhood dreams.

Not just because the victory was, after more than a decade of near-invisible toil, shown live on TV and in a breakthrough competition for Women’s XVs rugby.

But it came with all the trimmings: Hewson up on the shoulders, with confetti drifting and champagne corks popping. How good.

The problem with a movie script finish, however, is what most people expect next, particularly from a then-38-year-old. They expect credits and the end of the show. 

And despite Hewson having never really thought about the precise 'when' of her retirement, the sudden arrival of a perfectly good fairytale finish meant the veteran star was now in a corner of her own painting. 

"I did think about it, because it was such an amazing high to finish on,” Hewson said.

“But retirement for any athlete, it’s really difficult. Mental health wise. 

"A lot of people forget that you have been doing this thing for so long, and doing it at a high level, and just living it. For that to be taken away from you, and quite quickly, that’s half-the-issue for many athletes, there is no transition period there.”

Put simply, Hewson loved rugby too much to make a snap call to leave it. 

With Wallaroos coach Dwayne Nestor having made it clear he was looking to bring through youth, Hewson later announced her international ‘retirement’ but played out another club season for Sydney Uni; figuring she’d assess where things stood at the end.

Uni won another title.

"I did feel bad for her post-Super W because she played with an injury for most the season and then she got the fairytale ending, which probably made it unduly tough on whatever decision she had to make next,” NSW coach Matt Evrard said.

"She played in that Sydney premiership season and she was at such a good quality level. When the finals came around and all the Wallaroos were back, and all the pressure was turned up in those games, again she still owned all those games.”

Hewson spoke with Evrard about going around again for NSW in the second Super W season and for the coach, it was a no-brainer. You had me at hello.

"Because it was so amazing that first season, I thought if I was physically and form-wise capable - which I felt I was at the end of my club season - then how could I not be part of it?” Hewson said.

"Particularly with this team, it’s very special to me. I have played for a long time with some of those girls, and I think about all those girls who I played with before too.

"I have said it a million times: all of this - the Super W, the television, the season launches - is something I never thought I’d see, and I know a few of the girls who are retired now and left before this happened, they’re a bit like “damn”. But they paved the way for it, undoubtedly. I am just the lucky one to still be able to play.”

Hewson pulled the boots back on for season two and, in Evrard’s view, the now injury-free NSW captain has only got better in her 39th  year.

Playing at centre andf fullback, Hewson has led the team through another unbeaten season and into a second consecutive home Grand Final, which will be played against the old foe Queensland on Sunday at Leichhardt Oval.

"A lot of people like to talk about her age … but there are still stages in this competition where I look and there is no player out there who’s up to her level,” Evrard said.

"You can’t be critical of national selections or anything last year, she was playing injured for most of it.

"So the standard she was playing last year - while she had some big impacts in the final and probably won it for us - was actually nowhere near the quality of what has been this year.

"She has barely had a minute off the field and really had led the team, both as a player and a leader. Honestly, she is invaluable to our girls out on the field at the moment. She is teaching live-in-play.”

In many ways Hewson is a throwback footballer thawed out in a modern world; proudly old-school in every way but perhaps none more so than being a genuine captain-coach.

At training and in games, Hewson is literally out there running a clinic.

"She is a person that every looks up to. If she is on the field with you, everyone will instantly feel more confident. They’ll believe in themselves,” Waratahs no.8 Grace Hamilton says.

"When she is on the field, she is basically like a coach out there on the field.

Before the start of the season, Hewson spoke to her NSW teammates – many of whom are teenagers - about the opportunity they have been given in Super W that past generations only dreamed about. 

This the exact moment you can imagine millennials tuning out but every player was gripped. Teammates say the humility and hard-work culture of NSW Women’s rugby is all down to the presence of Hewson.

“You just leave your ego at the door and earn you stripes,” Hewson explains.

Hamilton says Hewson - a former prison guard at Long Bay jail gen pop - is a tough taskmaster but not in a tear-them-down way.

“She genuinely wants to help make you better - to build you up,” she says.

There are italics around Hewson’s Wallaroos “retirement” because such is her form and on-field influence many, including Evrard, believe her age shouldn’t prevent her from being on the selection table for Australia this year.

"At the end of the day she has to be spoken about,” Evrard said.

“It can’t be a matter of being closed to anything when it comes to selections. I get to talk to those guys at Wallaroos level and they’re not closed and shut. They talk about all the girls in the team and we have spoken about Ash as much as we have about other girls in the squad.

"You never know what they’ll end up going with but I am very much aware she is back on the table and being spoken about, because of how she has played this season.”

Before any of that comes, there is another another Grand Final for Hewson.

All year long Hewson has squirmed when asked about her heroics in the 2018 decider and those who know her aren’t surprised. It was way too much limelight.

"It’s not something I like talking about but I don’t like talking about myself full-stop,” she said.

“I hope at the end of it all I am remembered more for being a good person and a good teammate than one kick or one tackle."

Retirement? Who knows. In the end, Hewson transitioning full-time into coaching with NSW will be more a paperwork issue than a drastic career change.

The confetti and champagne corks are nice but Evrard jokes that Hewson’s ideal last game of rugby would be a few handshakes and no fanfare.

"If she had it her way, she’ll walk off and open up a tinnie as soon as possible somewhere. By herself,” Evrard laughs.

"But listen, I don’t know how many times now I have seen her being chaired off at the end of Grand Finals. 

“The girls around her just feel the need to do it. She inspires people.”

The Waratahs host Queensland in the Super W grand final on Sunday April 7 at Leichhardt Oval, kicking off at 4:30pm AEST, LIVE on and Kayo Sports. Buy tickets here.