It should have come as a massive relief to everyone across the country when New Zealand Rugby confirmed that the Farah Palmer Cup (FPC) would kick off in mid-August, despite the many interruptions the year had suffered due to the coronavirus pandemic.

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While NZR had been working furiously behind the scenes to give the premier women’s competition the go-ahead, there was some trepidation that the tournament might fall victim to the global shutdown.

Already the women’s game had been hit hard. The Black Ferns were scheduled to play eight tests in 2020 – the most they’d ever had in a non-World Cup calendar year – but, like the All Blacks, international fixtures have become exceptionally difficult to coordinate. While there will hopefully still be some trans-Tasman battles scheduled for later in the year, we won’t see the massive array of fixtures that had previously been arranged – which is a hit to the game in general, but even more so when you consider that New Zealand are hosting the 2021 World Cup.

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As a schoolboy, Damian McKenzie captained the Christs College 1st XV often against bigger schools. Against the powerhouse of Otago Boys in 2013, McKenzie left the commentators speechless.

Thankfully, confirmation that the FPC would go ahead almost as scheduled (kicking off a week earlier than last year’s competition but with a slightly different format) came in the latter stages of May, which gives the country’s top female players something to look forward to this year.

Finally having some rugby locked in for 2020 is especially important to Black Ferns and Canterbury halfback Kendra Cocksedge, given it could well be her final year wearing the red and black stripes.

“As athletes, it’s nice to have those confirmed dates and have something to look forward to that the rest of the country and supporters can get behind,” Cocksedge told RugbyPass shortly after the Farah Palmer Cup was announced for 2020.

“The Farah Palmer Cup is huge for us and it needed to be there and I think the quality of it over the last three or four years has just shot through the roof. More supporters are tuning in and the game has changed, it’s higher quality footy – good expansive play, good catch-pass and it’s just growing and it’s really cool to be a part of that and play in it.”

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Cocksedge was originally planning on hanging up the boots after the 2017 World Cup but eventually decided that if she were still fit enough to play, why would she give up the game she loves? For she isn’t just heavily involved on the field – she also works as NZR’s women’s rugby development manager for the Crusaders region.

The women’s sport became semi-professional in New Zealand in 2018 when a small group of Black Ferns were given contracts that would effectively allow them to focus on playing rugby full-time. For Cocksedge, however, there was never much thought given to handing in her resignation with New Zealand Rugby.

“I’ve done it all my life I guess so I really enjoy working and training,” she said. “I’ve got a really good team and it’s probably what keeps me motivated as well as just being lucky enough to work in the game and be in a job that I’m so passionate about.

“Honestly, I’m just so passionate about the game. People think I’m absolutely crazy because I work in it and I play in it, it’s every day for me. When I first got my job at New Zealand Rugby, they were like, ‘Oh, it might be quite tough if you’re playing in working in it,’ but I just love it. That’s what it comes down to. I’d have no idea what I’d do if there was no rugby.

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“Realistically, I know I’m coming to the end of my playing career now so my off-field and my work is hugely important to me – I’ve got some goals I want to achieve within my job as well. It’s something that I’ll start focusing on, probably after the World Cup.”

It’s been an incredible playing career to date for Cocksedge, who first represented both Canterbury and New Zealand in 2007 when she was just 19-years-old. On the international scene, the nuggety halfback won two World Cups in 2010 and 2017 and was presented the Kelvin R Tremain Memorial Player of the Year award in 2018, which is bestowed to New Zealand’s top performing player – man or woman. Even after taking all those achievements into consideration, it could well be Cocksedge’s time with Canterbury that she looks back on most fondly.

Since the early days of women’s provincial rugby, Auckland have been the powerhouse of the nation, securing 15 of the first 16 national competitions. Auckland took home the title every year in Cocksedge’s first eight seasons with Canterbury. It’s fair to say, the northerners were viewed with a bit of an aura of invincibility, not dissimilar to New Zealand’s All Blacks.

In 2016, Counties Manukau did the unthinkable and finally usurped Auckland, besting them in the final 41-22. That gave hope to the rest of New Zealand’s provinces; Auckland were beatable.

“Auckland are a great side, full of Black Ferns and they’ve been well-deserving of the number of times they’ve won the competition but when Counties upset them and took it off them that year, I think that made other teams realise that it can happen,” Cocksedge said.

“I think that’s probably what happened for us, it gave us a little bit of light. Yeah, Auckland still have Black Ferns – but let’s not put them on a pedestal and, as a team, let’s just focus on the process and the outcome will take care of itself.

“I mean, it took some time but we got there. I honestly believe with Counties doing it, it just gave other teams – and even especially us – a little bit of hope that Auckland are actually beatable.

One year later, Canterbury had fought their way into a final against the reigning champions and had to travel to Pukekohe to try to win a maiden title against Counties. It was a tough slog, but a try to loose forward Rebecca Todd with barely two minutes to spare gave Canterbury the points they needed to secure a 13-7 victory.

After a decade of trying, Cocksedge finally had her first provincial title – and her Canterbury side backed that performance up in 2018 and 2019 with two more championships to their name.

“For me as an individual, you have your little wee accolades and little things you kind of want to achieve in your career and to finally tick that Farah Palmer Cup championship off was pretty special,” Cocksedge said.

“I got heaps of messages from past players, ones that I played with early on in my career, and they were absolutely stoked for us but just were like, ‘Why couldn’t we do it when we were playing?’ – but they’re still proud of how we’ve gone over the last three years and the Canterbury Rugby Union are really supportive and have been awesome in that space.

“The girls work hard, they train hard, they do their homework – and over the last three years we’ve seen the results.”

Still, despite the years that went into Canterbury finally winning their first FPC title, nothing really compares to competing on a global scale and winning a World Cup.

“That feeling is something that you obviously can’t imagine. Words can’t really explain how awesome it is to win a World Cup and to have won two is a pretty unreal feeling and it’s almost like a weight’s lifted off your shoulders.

“All that hard work, that blood, sweat and tears that goes into wanting to make the Black Ferns and then playing for them… it’s indescribable.”

And now Cocksedge has one final chance to make an impact on the world scene – in front of a home crowd too, when New Zealand hosts the World Cup late next year.

“That’s what made me come back to continue to play, the fact that there’s a World Cup on home soil,” she said. “What a place to host it. We had the men’s World Cup here in 2011 and the whole country got in behind it, and we hope that happens for the women’s World Cup as well.

“I couldn’t think of a better way, to be honest, to end my career. Winning a World Cup on home turf in a final at Eden Park – that’d be a pretty awesome way to finish my career. It’s been pretty unreal, and I’ve achieved a lot of things I never, ever expected to.

“It’s something you never think about, the awards that come with it. It’s a team game and you always put the team first but those little things that come with it are still pretty special.”

Cocksedge was awarded both the New Zealand and World Rugby Women’s Player of the Year awards in 2015, then came the big one three years later.

When she won the Kelvin R Tremain award in 2018, it was the first time that a woman had received the coveted prize. It put the 31-year-old halfback in the record books alongside the likes of All Blacks legends Zinzan Brooke, Jonah Lomu, Tana Umaga, Richie McCaw and Dan Carter – not bad company.

Perhaps breaking the mould and being the first woman to receive the award will go down in the annals as Cocksedge’s greatest ever accomplishment. It’s an incredible achievement in of itself – but she is also well aware of what it means for New Zealand’s female rugby players as well as women in sport in general.

“What was huge for me was putting women’s rugby out there and putting us on a pedestal where we deserve to be,” Cocksedge said.

“It’s a great game and I just hope that young ones coming through and parents of the young girls coming through have seen that and said, ‘Oh my goodness.’ We’re breaking glass ceilings and showing that women can do anything.

“Whether it’s in rugby or out of rugby, it’s hopefully giving some young females something to aspire to and showing that if you put your mind to something, you can achieve it. I just hope it gives some young females some confidence, even just within rugby.”

With greater prominence on the park and on the TV, there will no doubt be a slew of young rugby players – both boys and girls – who see and are inspired by Cocksedge and her fellow Black Ferns.

Next year’s World Cup will be just one more chance for the women of New Zealand rugby to dazzle and impress on the highest stage – but even before 2021, Cocksedge and her Canterbury side have a Farah Palmer Cup title to defend.

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