Clare Hunt: “When the next opportunity comes, I’ll be ready.”

A national team debut is a milestone of great significance for any player. Each pathway to donning the green and gold is uniquely paved, some having more potholes, forks and roadblocks than others.

Journeys like these make the reward of representing your country a little bit sweeter, as was the case for CommBank Matildas’ cap #224, Clare Hunt.

February 16, 2023, Central Coast Stadium, Gosford. The CommBank Matildas kicked off their three-match tournament, the Cup of Nations, against Czechia.

It was the first match of a home FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023™ year. Head coach Tony Gustavsson referred to the tournament as a “dress rehearsal” for the real deal just a few months away.

The pressure to succeed couldn’t have been greater. Already carried into the year on a hot streak of four consecutive victories from 2022, this was a chance to prove to doubters that this team was no flash in the pan.

But the first 45 minutes were filled with frustration for the Australian women. Chances were aplenty with multiple Matildas menacing in the final third, but unable to convert.

Despite dangerous-looking set pieces, the Aussies went into halftime unable to break down a resilient Czechian defence.

NEWCASTLE, AUSTRALIA – FEBRUARY 22: Katrina Gorry of Australia celebrates scoring a goal with team mate Clare Hunt during the Cup of Nations match between the Australia Matildas and Jamaica at McDonald Jones Stadium on February 22, 2023 in Newcastle, Australia. (Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

As the team walked back onto the pitch for the second half, one noticeable change had been made, with Clare Hunt claiming her national team debut at centre-back.

Spending the last five years biding her time through surgeries and setbacks and captaining the Western Sydney Wanderers in the A-League women’s, she had been patiently waiting for this moment. She couldn’t have been more ready.

“Running out onto the pitch… It was incredible,” Hunt said.

“It was really, really special and something I’ve honestly so worked hard for, through five to six years of injury battles. I didn’t feel nervous, it was almost like feeling the enjoyment of a hard-earned reward.”

Within 11 minutes of debuting, Hunt provided an assist for the CommBank Matildas’ second goal of the match. It was a half that saw the team resurrected from a scoreless deadlock to a 4-0 victory.

Post-match Tony Gustavsson didn’t mince words, calling Hunt’s debut one of the greatest he’s seen in his career.

“She carried herself in a very, very mature way, beyond her years. I’m going to be honest, this might be too big of a headline, but I’m not sure I’ve seen this type of debutant in my two years with this team,” he said.

“Think about it, it’s 0-0 against the Czech Republic world cup year, she goes on at halftime to a team that had struggled in the first half and looked like she’d done nothing but play with us.”

Gustavsson wasn’t the only one to notice the way Hunt seamlessly slotted in, with many fans and spectators commenting that in between organising her teammates and contributing to the attack, she just looked like she belonged.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – FEBRUARY 19: Steph Catley of Australia (L) and Clare Hunt of Australia (R) celebrate victory during the 2023 Cup of Nations Match between Australian Matildas and Spain at CommBank Stadium on February 19, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

There was no ‘deer in the headlights’ or debut jitters for Hunt, which she says comes from knowing her role and being confident in her ability.

“I don’t think that being calm and confident was a conscious decision, it’s just how I am as a person. I feel like I am quite calm in everything I do, so for me, it was just an opportunity to express myself and I felt that was the best way to do it,” she said.

“In a camp environment where everything is new and different, the best thing to do is be yourself. So, any communication, any displays of leadership that were noticed, I naturally do that week in, week out at club level.

“My composure comes from just doing the things I’ve been doing for years. I didn’t come in unsure of what I was meant to do, because I knew that I had earned my right to be there and I was doing the right thing,” she continued.

“Part of me knew that I could rise to the occasion and play at that level, so, I just took that with both hands and went with it. I’m proud to have conducted myself in that way, but also, for wanting to contribute to bettering the squad and bringing the best out of my teammates.”

Fellow CommBank Matilda, Cortnee Vine also praised her new squad mate for her stellar debut.

“It didn’t look like she was new to the game. She had a great debut and didn’t look out of place at all. She got an assist for Hayley Raso. What more can you ask for from a debut?” she said.

Vice-captain Steph Catley echoed Vine’s thoughts.

“[Hunt] was incredible. We’ve seen her in training the last couple of days, and she’s really stood out. She’s an aggressive no-nonsense centre-back.

“She’s got a great switch on her, confident in her ability, very, very strong in the air and in her duels.

She’s a really top-quality player that we’ve been looking for. If we’ve had an injury to a centre-back in the past, we’ve really had to adjust our lineup and slot other people in, so it’s nice to have some depth there and people challenging for spots with the World Cup around the corner.”

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – JANUARY 14: Clare Hunt of the Wanderers controls the ball during the round 10 A-League Women’s match between Western Sydney Wanderers and Western United at Wanderers Park on January 14, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

Growing up on a farm in the rural ‘gold rush’ town of Grenfell, NSW, Hunt is one of a handful of CommBank Matildas who, due to their location, didn’t take the traditional path to reach the national team.

“The pathway for me was to play in NSW Country or travel to the Canberra United Academy, so I spent a lot of my grassroots years doing that,” the Young Matildas alumni explained.

“At 17, I moved to Sydney and played with Sydney University in the women’s NPL and Canberra United in the (then) W-League. There was a lot of travel involved, but it gave me the opportunity to play in the A-League Women’s. I’ve now been in Sydney with the Western Sydney Wanderers for two years.”

Debuting just a couple of weeks shy of her 24th birthday, Hunt is considered older than most national team debutants, with a laundry list of injuries that kept her on the sidelines. But she proves that the best things take time.

“In 2018, I tore my ACL, then between 2019 and 2021, I had issues with my opposite knee, which required screws being put in. There ended up being some complications with that, so it took a while to rehab,” she explained.

I then had a shoulder reconstruction due to an injury in a game and I also broke my ankle, mid-last year, so I’ve had a long run of injuries.”

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – MARCH 19: Clare Hunt of the Wanderers scores a goal during the round 18 A-League Women’s match between Western Sydney Wanderers and Brisbane Roar at Wanderers Football Park, on March 19, 2023, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Tim Allsop/Getty Images)

Wise beyond her years, Hunt sees the silver lining in her unorthodox and obstacle-ridden journey.

“I think my injuries allowed me to develop myself off the park and gave me a mental edge, so I’m grateful that I got to experience that and grow as a player and as a person.

“There was never a point where I thought I wanted to give it up, because I hadn’t had a decent enough time in the game, or enough opportunity to feel like I could prove what I could do with my football career. That was why I continued to rehab, because I felt like I hadn’t been given a chance yet,” Hunt shared.

“Having your first major injury at 17-18 is hard because you’re still growing up and you’re still learning the ropes in terms of developing as a professional footballer. But going through those injuries helped me mature a lot, helped me to understand my teammates a lot better and gave me an opportunity to be ‘someone’ for my team when I wasn’t playing.

“Now that I have those qualities, I feel like I can support my teammates better, I can support myself better in terms of my physical and mental preparation for matches and training. The whole experience made me a far more well-rounded individual.”

With a major milestone checked off the list for Hunt, when asked what’s next her response is humble, yet determined.

“I don’t want to look too far ahead. For me, it’s just focusing on what I can do, week in, week out, with club football, and then any opportunity that arises with the national team, obviously taking it with both hands and doing what I did in the first camp,” she said.

“I’m just looking forward to more experiences like that. And when they come, I’ll be ready.”