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Kennedy Simon: The two sides to the Black Ferns co-captain

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - NOVEMBER 12: Kennedy Simon of New Zealand celebrates with the Rugby World Cup trophy after winning the Rugby World Cup 2021 Final match between New Zealand and England at Eden Park on November 12, 2022 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins - World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

There are two sides to Kennedy Simon.

There’s the one you see on the rugby field, full of intensity and focus, who’ll fling herself into an opposing player seemingly without care for her own body and with a look that suggests she’s about to take their block off.

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Then there’s the off-field Kennedy, described as being without a mean bone in her body, as genuine and kind as the day is long, who never loses her cool and who wants to help kids get the same opportunities she had.

The two Kennedys combined are a beautiful collision of the person and the player.

Even as she’s grown into one of the best players in the world, Simon flies under the radar. Without the profile of champion loose forwards like Marlie Packer and Sophie de Goede, or even that of her younger team-mates such as Liana Mikaele Tu’u and Layla Sae who’ve taken New Zealand rugby by storm, the abrasive openside flanker seems happy to go about her business and let the spotlight shine on others.

It seems it’s always been that way, and Simon’s path to the Black Ferns co-captaincy has been far from linear. In fact, she was almost lost to New Zealand entirely.

Fresh out of high school and not yet on the national radar, she took up a three-year deal playing with the Hokkaido Barbarians in Japan, where the owner, who she says called himself “Very Rich Man”, sounded her out about playing for the Sakura Sevens, the Japanese national team. Simon attended a handful of training camps.

“I’d fitted in well at training and then at the end of 2017 he asked if I’d play for Japan and I was like, if I’m good enough for them to ask maybe I’d be good enough for New Zealand and I didn’t want to cut that off. So, yeah, I was really close and they wanted us to go to camp the next week but I told him that my decision was to go home.”

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Dual international legend Honey Hireme-Smiler, who’d first seen Simon playing for Hamilton Girls’ High School and could see then how others were drawn to her, was also in Japan with the touring Waikato team at the time Simon was making the decision.

“In her heart, she wanted to be a Black Fern but Japan was giving her an opportunity, and I told her she was absolutely good enough to be in the black jersey” Hireme-Smiler recalls. “Everyone says players can kind of lose a bit of form being in Japan but she’d gone from strength to strength and was bashing everyone. Not long after that, she did come back, jumped straight into a pre-season tournament in the Waikato, and she was, again, the best player at this tournament and I just thought, man if people don’t see her now…”

They did see her. Later that year Simon was playing for Waikato and in 2019 she became a Black Fern, making her debut off the bench against the United States in San Diego. Simon had decided by then to throw her lot in with rugby, putting a teaching degree on hold even though she still wasn’t contracted by New Zealand Rugby.

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Eventually, the contract making her a full-time professional player came in 2020 and, in 2022, Ruahei Demant asked her to co-captain the Black Ferns to the World Cup.

For a slow burn of a career, things escalated quickly.

Watching Simon play is enough to make anyone wince. There’s a ferocity and aggression that belies not only her size but her nature, and an intensity that usually, World Cup final yellow card notwithstanding, stays controlled. Hireme-Smiler says never has a player so aggressive on the field been the total opposite off it, and she’s never seen Simon angry. Simon herself doesn’t really know where such hunger comes from.

“I was talking to Iain [Saunders] our performance coach and he did a personality test on everybody, and was like ‘man you’re a real soft person but you just know how to flip the switch’,” she says. “He reckons it’s something about my competence that I really don’t want people to question it, which for sure I would hate for people to look at me like ‘oh, she’s not even trying’.”

It bears out in a conversation Simon had with then-New Zealand coach Wayne Smith when she found herself coming off the bench in the World Cup quarters, semis and final, having recovered in the nick of time from a knee injury. Questioning the decision, Simon asked Smith if he trusted her…the master coach’s reply was simple.

“He said if he didn’t trust me, I wouldn’t be in the team at all,” she says, getting the kind of validation she needed after battling injury at various times in her career. “I’ve now been through so much that I’m comfortable that I know my values, what I can add, and I know that everybody loves me for who I am. I just do the damage when I get the opportunity whether it’s for eight minutes or 80.”

The use of the word ‘love’ is Simon to a tee, says Hireme-Smiler.

“People say she leads by actions, but she also leads by her words, and her heart too, because she’s so genuine. Even if she has to call somebody out, she does it in the most caring way possible,” she says. 

Kennedy Simon Honey Hireme-Smiler

“In the heat of the moment I’ve never seen her lose it; she always comes from a positive mindset and sometimes, for some people, that can be just for the field but actually, that’s just Kennedy 100% of the time.”

Hireme-Smiler believes part of Simon’s quiet success is that she doesn’t need to be in the spotlight or have a big social media profile and is quite happy to simply get her work done and keep herself to herself.

“She almost has that Sam Cane kind of persona, you know, just goes about things, puts in the work and doesn’t need to tell people about it because she knows she’s doing it. She only needs to prove herself to herself.”

Like Cane, Simon too perhaps fits the “strong, silent” mould of many New Zealand captains, but with one key difference; Simon doesn’t wear the skipper’s armband alone and sees the co-captaincy of the Black Ferns with Demant as “a privilege shared”. However, she concedes she sometimes battles with all that entails.

“Just trying to balance the leader, the best player I can be, managing our off field and making sure on field is firing. It’s an amazing job, this is the kind of pressure that people only dream about and I’m lucky that I’ve got a great support system.

Chief support officer is Simon’s fiancée Solomone Tukuafu, himself a rugby player with the Highlanders. The pair have been together since high school and friends like Hireme-Smiler says they’re the perfect foil for each other – the comedic ‘Solly’ and the slightly more serious, but no less fun Simon

“Yes, that sounds about right,” Simon laughs. “He’s very much just do and I’m think before I do, but he’s brilliant for me when I’m struggling with the devil on my shoulder, he’ll just give me reason. And we’re both crazy code heads so it works well.”

While Tukuafu is the rock, there’s someone else who Simon credits with helping her get this far; Crystal Kaua, current coach of the Chiefs Manawa. Simon says Kaua was the first person who really saw her rugby ability and did all she could to nurture it, often picking her up for training or gifting her old boots when needed. Simon doubts she’d have achieved all she has without Kaua and it’s why she too wants to be “someone’s Muzz” (Kaua’s nickname), and help young people achieve their goals.

After the historic defeat by Canada in the Pacific Four series and losses to England and France in WXV, there’s some soul searching going on in the Black Ferns. Simon knows the outside expectation is for high standards and nothing less than winning. but she also senses important shifts in the performance culture and mindset of the team are being made.

A shaky start to the season means there’s ground to make up and there’s a date on the calendar that Simon knows will be the litmus test of where they’re at and how far they have to go before next year’s World Cup. Circle it now, September 14, when the Black Ferns take on England at Twickenham in front of what will likely be a record crowd and perhaps the most hostile environment New Zealand has ever faced. That’s the one Simon is really waiting for this year.

She uses words like “beautiful” and “love” to describe her team, her team-mates and her current lot in life. But ask what makes her thrive, what makes her happy, and two sides of Kennedy Simon collide again.

“What makes me happy is playing rugby…playing brutal rugby.”

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Turlough 54 minutes ago
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