From missing out on a World Cup due to a cruciate injury to her transformation as a forward, Ashling Hutchings tells Mary White about her return to Cork football
THE announcement came in the huddle before the league semi-final, and if ever Ashling Hutchings was caught off guard it was now.
Their last training session had gone well ahead of their battle with Kerry, and Eamonn Ryan commenced calling out the team. Traditionally a defender – sometimes midfielder – Hutchings had played every game in the league to-date at corner-back. But, things were about to change as fast as you could say centre-forward.
“I nearly had a heart attack,” Hutchings laughs, as if still even comprehending the fact that she’s now a key member of Cork’s attack.
“Eamonn called out the backs and Marie Ambrose was named at corner-back, and I was a little disappointed but I thought ‘Ok, Marie’s playing really, really well and deserves to be on’, so I slightly tuned out then because he’d gone past the backs.
“But, then it came to ‘Ciara (O’Sullivan), Aisling Hutchings…’ and my face nearly dropped. Well, it did drop!” the Fermoy woman smiles.
“I just remember saying to myself ‘Hide it, hide the shock!’. I couldn’t tell you who else was called out because my brain was all over the place.”
MOVING HUTCHINGS A MASTERSTROKE
But, it was a masterstroke by Ryan, and in a mini conflab afterwards, ‘The Master’ explained to the former Irish rugby sevens star, that her job now was to take the ball on, and drive at players. Ever since, she’s delivered.
Hutchings had first played with the Cork senior team in 2011 and 2012, but her exploits with the Munster rugby team and on the international sevens circuit saw her in demand. Ryan understood the honour of representing your country and province, and never held her back, but all along Hutching’s was yearning to put back on a red jersey of a different kind, a different code.
In the summer of 2013, Ireland had been her priority given the prospect of playing in a Rugby World Cup in Moscow. Just 23 at the time, and in her prime, Hutching’s pace ripped teams apart at a pre World Cup tournament in France, and then it happened. Her cruciate snapped and with it her hopes of playing in Russia. Just hours later, the same fate was bestowed upon her Munster teammate Niamh Kavanagh, and it was tough to take.
“It was hard because the World Cup was just a few weeks away when it happened, but once I’d my surgery, I just had to focus on my rehab. My club football team got to a county final and lost and, standing on the sideline, I just wanted to go back.
“Getting injured playing rugby didn’t turn me off, but when I was injured I just couldn’t wait to go back playing football. I missed it so much,” Hutchings reveals, who’s UL Bohs and Fermoy LGFC teammates were hugely supportive during her recovery.
“When I got a chance then to go back with Cork this year, I had to pick one or the other. I was always trying to balance it out and could never fully commit to one or the other so I decided last Christmas, that was that.”
Working in the city centre with a company that translates software, Hutchings is polite, positive and extremely affable. Her ‘infectious laugh’, as former Cork captain Juliet Murphy once described it, warms up the city centre bar we meet in, as she opts for water.
Since her sojourn in 2011/2012, a lot has changed in the Cork camp. For a start, selectors Noel ‘Dip’ O’Connor and Justin McCarthy have been replaced by Shane Ronayne and Pa ‘Pazzer’ O’Leary, but they’re not the only ones who’ve been replenished.
Murphy, Norita Kelly, Angela Walsh, Elaine Harte, Nollaig Cleary, Máiread Kelly, Amy O’Shea and Anne-Marie Walsh are just some of the stars who’ve evaporated. In the 2011 final against Monaghan, Hutchings was named at 22. The following year against Kerry she’d worked her way up to number 18, but in Croker on Sunday she’ll be tipped to have number 11 on her back. Now she, like those named above, is a leader for Cork, but her return to the set-up in January was somewhat unusual.
“There were loads of people I didn’t know and it was trying to get to know all the names, that was the biggest difference. There were still the likes of Ger (O’Flynn), Val (Mulcahy), Briege (Corkery), Bríd (Stack)… but I was shocked by how many players I didn’t know!”
The transition has been a gradual one, but it goes to show the youth that’s coming through. And, should Ryan give Hutchings the nod to start, there could potentially be eight Croke Park starting debutants in two year’s for the reigning champions.
LOSING TO KERRY TAUGHT CORK HARSH LESSONS
Although having won the Division 1 National League title after a replay against Galway, Cork suffered a horrid loss to Kerry in the Munster final. The same day, the dual stars – Briege Corkery and Rena Buckley – played in a senior All-Ireland camogie qualifier in Páirc Uí Rinn, before packing up and moving to Mallow for a 6pm throw-in in football. Hutchings doesn’t agree with how it went down, but it taught her and her colleagues something about themselves.
” I don’t know if we were a bit complacent. I suppose things were going well so maybe we relaxed a bit, and the girls had the camogie. Not that that had anything to do with it because the rest of us needed to step up to cover them a little bit, but we didn’t. The girls would go out and play three games in the same day if you asked them, but the rest of us didn’t stand up, and I think that was a big realisation that day.”
Hutchings could very well be reflecting on the Munster motto – ‘Stand up and fight’. Last year she watched Cork’s All-Ireland final comeback in her bedroom. Standing up. Sitting down, stressed from how it was all unravelling.
“I was like ‘Oh my God, have Cork actually lost an All-ireland final? I couldn’t believe it, but you can never write Cork off. I should never have questioned them really!” she adds with a smile.
Both she and Cork will no doubt stand up again on the biggest stage of all come 4pm on Sunday.