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'Hopefully we can get girls into clubs and playing from a younger age'

Ireland Women scrum-half Ailsa Hughes is looking to take her game to the next level.

AILSA HUGHES’ IRELAND debut came in the 2017 Six Nations and a home World Cup that same year could have been one of the highlights of her playing career.

The Tullamore native was “absolutely gutted” to miss out on selection, however.

Her response to the disappointment was telling, with Hughes honing in on the reasons she had come up short and working hard to resolve them.

Ailsa Hughes Hughes plays club rugby with Railway Union. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

“I suppose at the time my rugby probably wasn’t up to scratch,” says Hughes, who returned to the Ireland fold for this year’s Six Nations and starts tomorrow’s November Test against the US in Donnybrook [KO 1pm] at scrum-half.

“That’s why I had to go away and actually focus on what type of rugby player I wanted to be and how I wanted to be, say, as a nine in itself, how I wanted to play as a nine. I tried to focus on what I was good at and what I needed to improve.”

Hughes is good at passing. It’s the real strength of her game and even in a position where every player needs to possess excellent passing skills, she stands out.

The first person to teach the Railway Union halfback how to pass was her brother, Adam, a scrum-half with Tullamore and UL Bohemians.

“I used to stand with my back up against the hedge and he used to fling a ball at me and that’s how I was taught to catch a ball,” says Hughes with a laugh.

“Then he got so fed up that I couldn’t pass it back, he taught me how to pass it back!”

Hughes admires Conor Murray’s box kicking and game management, as well as the running lines of All Blacks scrum-halves Aaron Smith and TJ Perenara.

Ailsa Hughes 21/1/2018 Hughes is a sharp passer. Source: CameraSport/Ashley Crowden/INPHO

Scrum-halves’ off-the-ball support play has never been so important, with nines now picking up large numbers of tries as they work hard to get upfield after their pass in order to provide inside support.

“Their running lines are unreal and that’s what I’m trying to mimic at the minute, those running lines,” says Hughes of the Kiwi pair.

“I think as a playing option, we’re always so used to going for an outside ball as opposed to giving an inside ball. To mix up defenders and actually be able to use a nine as a threat is good.”

Hughes has worked hard on her scanning and decision-making too, allowing her to more comfortably implement the kind of high-tempo attacking approach that Ireland Women head coach Adam Griggs is pushing his players to employ.

When she’s not training with Ireland, Hughes works as a club community rugby officer with Leinster in Westmanstown.

She started the role in September and is enjoying getting to share her own love for the sport.

“I’m into primary schools and secondary schools,” says the scrum-half. “It’s fantastic. With a name like Ailsa, everyone thinks I’m from Frozen! That’s a good way to get the kids starting, then you introduce them to the rugby.

“It’s really good and even from a selfish point of view, I’m in with boys and girls, but from that level you can see those girls who are good and never picked up a rugby ball before but you can see that they can play.

Ailsa Hughes Hughes makes a break against England in the Six Nations. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“It’s nice to be able to instil that in them and hopefully get them into clubs and get playing from a younger age.”

It’s not unimaginable that some of the children Hughes is encouraging to get into the sport now could end up being the Ireland internationals of the future.

“Nearly every school I’ve been into have been so keen to get it going,” she says. “The minute you mention it, they want you in tomorrow. It’s fantastic and even some of the teachers… the majority of them have never played, but even if they’ve had a bit of Tag in them, they want to get involved and they want to get started.

“Even to contact schools and get into them it has been huge to get them out and to get them involved.”

Hughes previously played camogie for Offaly – winning a minor All-Ireland and an Intermediate All-Ireland – but was a rugby fan and got so fed up of not having the opportunity to play that she helped to set-up the Tullamore Ladies rugby team six years ago and has been playing ever since.

She’s now with the “fantastic” Railway Union and played under Griggs with Leinster too.

The US are the opposition for Ireland’s their first November Test tomorrow, with a trip to England to come next weekend.

“This is my first autumn international, so it’s a bit of a change in time as opposed to getting ready for a Six Nations,” says Hughes. “But it’s really nice to have a couple of matches before the Six Nations to prepare for them.”

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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