Years of pain behind a Matilda’s last-minute Hunt for a World Cup spot

Clare Hunt thought she was going to the FIFA Women’s World Cup as a fan – now she’s close to playing at it, writes Tom Smithies.

One of Clare Hunt’s close friends may be in for something of a treat come late June, when the Matildas’ FIFA Women’s World Cup squad is announced.

If Hunt is included – and many observers believe her first two caps in the last week make that very likely indeed – then the tickets she bought to go to see the World Cup will suddenly need a new owner.

Nothing illustrates the speed of Hunt’s ascent into the World Cup reckoning than the fact that only weeks ago she assumed she would be going as a spectator.

And yet hers is also a story years in the making, but one that some had feared may never quite reach the heights it should.

Clare Hunt’s form for the Wanderers has catapaulted her into World Cup reckoning.

In less than five years, Hunt earned a W-League contract with Canberra United and a call-up to the Young Matildas, a scholarship to Sydney University, ruptured her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) requiring surgery, endured three further consecutive operations to correct issues with her other knee, dislocated her shoulder requiring a full reconstruction, fractured her tibia and returned to university to begin the process of becoming a Doctor of Physiotherapy.

The last part of all that is perhaps understandable, given the unique insight she has into so many forms of rehab. Rather more surprising is the speed with which she has returned to elite football and with such impact that her form for Western Sydney this season earnt such a belated call-up to the Matildas.

Now, on the back of 135 impressive minutes – especially the 90 against Spain which represented her starting debut on Sunday – she is widely expected to be on a fasttrack to Tony Gustavsson’s World Cup squad.

Perhaps most striking was her composure and willingness to organise the defence in the presence of rather more experienced colleagues – the game against Spain was just her 35th game of professional football, thanks to the appalling run of injuries that began in February 2018 with a ruptured ACL suffered at training with Canberra.

“I remember that day very well,” says former Matilda Heather Garriock, who was United’s head coach at the time, and also coached Hunt at Sydney University in the NSW NPL.

“It was pretty cruel timing because she had just won a top scholarship to Sydney University, and she had such a high level of potential as a footballer.

“She was so upset as you’d expect, but there was also a sense that she knew she’d bounce back. Obviously she didn’t know it would take so long, because of the issues that emerged in her other knee, but I never doubted that she would get through it.

“Her rehab skills are out of this world – it’s hard to explain, she’s just a student of the game with an understanding of what’s required to be at the top level.”

Clare Hunt playing for Canberra United in 2017 before her horror run of injuries.

Hunt is one of the players Gustavsson had been monitoring since basing himself here two years ago, and would have called her up sooner had she not suffered the shoulder injury which curtailed her season for Western Sydney last year.

With Alanna Kennedy still apparently suffering a minor knock that has kept her out of this series so far – and limited her to two games for Manchester City this season – Gustavsson’s need for defensive stocks is more acute than ever.

Suddenly, a 23-year-old who grew up on a lamb farm five hours west of Sydney could be the answer. “So much of her attitude, her composure and how humble she is comes from her family,” says Garriock who is still in touch with them.

“She had to travel so much but stood out when she was young, she had similar qualities to Ellie Carpenter who comes from the same region.

“I was sitting on the sidelines watching her playing against Czechia the other day and she was calm like it was any other game in the A-League Women, not her international debut.

“Her positioning was good, she was in her element, she was solid – that’s probably the best word, just like she’s always been. She sticks to the structure and organises those around her.

“She didn’t look out of place because she’s done the hard yards, been exposed to competitive football in the NPL and the A-League Women, and she fully deserves this opportunity.”