When Kennedy Simon took the phone call asking if she’d help captain the Black Ferns, she struggled to hold herself together.
Simon had moved to a quieter corner of the bustling gym where she trains every day with her fellow contracted Black Ferns and All Blacks from the Waikato, to take the call from Ferns captain Ruahei Demant.
“I asked her ‘Why me?’” 25-year-old Simon says. “And Ruahei said ‘Why not?’”
Simon had just come back from rehab after a freak knee injury – suffered in the Black Ferns’ dojo. It had left last year’s Black Ferns player of the year sidelined for 15 weeks.
She’d been sharply focused on making the next New Zealand training camp. So she was stunned when she was told earlier that day she’d made the Black Ferns squad to play Australia in the Laurie O’Reilly Cup series, which starts in Ōtautahi tomorrow.
“I thought, ‘This is my time to come back and get into it’,” Simon says.
“Then a few hours later, Ruahei messaged me, and I thought ‘Oh no, what’s going on here?’ I was worried that I must be in trouble.
“She called and said ‘Hey Kenny, we’ve been talking, and I was just wondering if you’d like to be co-captain with me?’ I couldn’t believe it. The gym was packed, the boys and the girls were all there, and I was trying to hold myself together. Ruahei said: ‘I’m so sorry, I hope no one’s around’.
“Then I told her: ‘I’d love to do it; I accept the challenge’.”
Demant could relate to Simon’s reaction. Like Simon, she hadn’t worn the captain’s armband many times in her career, so was shocked when the Black Ferns’ new director of coaching, Wayne Smith, asked her to take on the national captaincy in the Pacific Four series in June.
She believes Simon’s leadership skills will complement hers and having co-captains will spread the load in this series, leading into October’s home World Cup.
“The PacFour success has also helped us as leaders. I look back at last year and Les [Elder] being captain for those four losses and the pressure she was under – I don’t want to know what that feels like,” Demant told NZ Rugby World.
Simon, who’s played just eight games for the Black Ferns, is overjoyed to wear the armband alongside Demant in Saturday’s test at Christchurch’s Orangetheory Stadium.
“Ruahei is awesome, she makes me feel calm and ready,” Simon says. “She’s an incredible woman on and off the field. She has this way of bringing people together and bringing a calmness to the team.”
And what does Simon hope to bring to the Black Ferns in her new role?
“I think I’m really different in the sense that I don’t like to say a lot. I worry people might get sick of what I have to say,” she laughs. “I like to lead through my actions.
“Tackling is something that I really enjoy. I focus on that to make sure I keep getting better with every game.”
Simon’s actions speak for themselves. Able to slot into any of the loose forward roles, she’ll wear the No.7 jersey in her first test of 2022.
Of Ngāti Maniapoto and Ngāti Mahanga descent, Simon has been described as the prototype of a modern-day loosie – with her speed, strength and outstanding ball handling. In 2020, she was named both the international and Farah Palmer Cup player of the year for Waikato, followed up by her crowning as the best Black Fern last year.
She’s already had a taste of co-captaincy – taking on that responsibility for Waikato this season with young Black Fern Renee Holmes, who’s playing at fullback for New Zealand tomorrow.
But there were times this year when Simon wondered if she’d make it back onto the field this season.
Simon remembers being excited to be at the first training camp under Smith and his coaching assistants, Whitney Hansen and Wesley Clarke, in Christchurch in April (after she’d helped the Chiefs to win the first Super Rugby Aupiki title). Simon was in the ‘dojo’ – a padded room where the players practise wrestling and grappling – when the unexpected happened.
“We were just warming up in pairs, and unfortunately two girls on the other side of the room came across and fell onto my leg. It was a freak accident,” Simon says.
“It didn’t quite sink in when it happened, but as the pain went away I started to think ‘Oh no’.”
She had a decent tear – a grade three – of the medial collateral ligament (MCL). Her medical team decided not to do surgery, but to get Simon into serious rehab instead. It was an arduous 15 weeks.
“It was quite painful because the Black Ferns went into PacFour for four weeks,” she says.
“I went to watch the first game in Tauranga against Australia and hung out with the team. But I immediately felt how happy everyone was, and really connected. They were playing really good rugby. It was awesome to watch them dominate in that series.”
Her knee is now “100 percent”, she says, after putting it to the test for a full 80 minutes last weekend in Waikato’s narrow 29-27 loss to perennial FPC rivals, Canterbury. “I’m really stoked.”
She’s excited too, to have the opportunity to learn from rugby’s coaching maestro, Smith, aka ‘The Professor’.
“Smithy is really pushing us for more edge,” Simon says. “He’s getting the girls to believe in each other and let the ball go – to play fast-paced, exhilarating rugby which plays right into most of our team’s qualities and abilities. It’s very exciting.
“It really is a privilege to work with him. He’s extraordinary. One of the most intelligent rugby people, he has so much to offer. He sees things before they happen; he has us trainings things so we can anticipate when to use them.
“And everyone is buying into it. On the field, we’re always trying to move forward, never backwards.”
Simon can also share what she’s learning from the new coaching crew with her fiancé, Waikato prop Solomone Tukuafu, who made his debut for the Chiefs this year. “He loves hearing about the things we get up to,” she says. “It’s an amazing experience we’re having.”
Kennedy Simon and her partner, Solomone Tukuafu, both played rugby for the Chiefs this season.
She’s always been open to learning more about the game. She was a product of Hamilton Girls’ High School, who’ve turned out an impressive array of Black Ferns 15s and sevens players in the past decade.
Simon’s best friend is Tenika Willison, who was a year behind her at school, and is now a regular member of the Black Ferns Sevens. Sevens stars Shiray Kaka, Jazmin Felix-Hotham and Shakira Baker were also from Hamilton Girls’.
“I look back to those times and think that really set us up well. We were able to come away from high school and be resilient in everything to do with rugby,” Simon says.
Her first international call-up was for the Black Ferns Sevens Development squad touring Japan in 2018. She ended up spending three seasons playing in Japan for the Hokkaido Barbarians.
“Playing in Japan allowed me to be a bit more free, to express myself more,” she says. “We started with a really young team who hadn’t played a lot of rugby. So I was able to step up and do something different. I was even kicking.
“When I came home I was able to expand on my skills, because I had more confidence and I knew what I was capable of. It was an amazing time.”
Simon made her Black Ferns 15s debut in 2019 against the United States. Of course, there haven’t been a lot of opportunities to wear the black jersey since then.
“That’s what we train for, we train to win, not to participate,” Kennedy Simon
She had aspirations to join the police, but began training to become a teacher. That’s been put on hold this year after she became one of the 29 players offered full-time contracts with New Zealand Rugby.
“That’s been huge,” she says. She trains with six other contracted players in the Waikato hub gym, where daily work can include mental skills, video analysis and on-field skills.
“It’s really shown through the last eight months – we’ve taken huge strides in our gym numbers and our running numbers. We come into camp that much sharper, and it’s just about putting polish on our game plan and the little things we’re trying to execute.
“It’s crazy to think we can focus purely on rugby now. We don’t have to go into the gym in the morning then work eight hours, and go back to the gym and do it all over again. We get to start work at 2pm – we’re pretty lucky.”
Although Simon has become a force to be reckoned with on the field, she’s not taking anything for granted. She’s mindful there’s a lot of competition coming through who all want to play at the first World Cup on home soil. Players like former captain Elder, who’s been overlooked for this series, and Liana Mikaele-Tu’u, who’s coming back from injury.
It would be “a dream come true” for Simon to play on Eden Park for the opening match of the World Cup – against the Wallaroos – on October 8.
“We’ve been talking about how it will be very exciting to be able to play in front of family, friends and your country,” she says.
“But it comes with its own pressures: The what ifs? We talked about the ‘What if we lose?’ Well turn that on its head – ‘What if we win?’ And that’s what we train for, we train to win, not to participate.
“So we’re going to put it all out there. We want to inspire and make our family and our country proud.”
* The Black Ferns play the first of two tests against Australia at Orangetheory Stadium in Ōtautahi, Christchurch, on Saturday, 7pm kick-off; live on Sky Sport 1. The second Laurie O’Reilly Cup test is in Adelaide the following Saturday.