The two sides to the Black Ferns co-captain

There are two sides to Kennedy Simon.

There's the one you see on the rugby field, full of strength and focus, who will hurl herself at an opposing player seemingly without care for her body and with a look that suggests she's about to take her lumps off.

Then there's Kennedy off the field, who is described as without a bone in her body, honest and kind as the day is long, who never loses her temper and who wants to help kids have the same opportunities she had.

Taken together, Kennedy is a beautiful collision of person and player.

Although she has grown into one of the best players in the world, Simone flies under the radar. Without the portfolio of attacking heroines like Marley Packer and Sophie de Goede, or even her younger teammates like Leanna Michaele Too and Leila Saye who have taken New Zealand rugby by storm, the abrasive open player seems happy to do her thing and let the spotlight shine on others.

It seems it has always been that way, and Simon's path to captaining the Black Ferns has been far from linear. In fact, it almost lost to New Zealand entirely.

Fresh out of high school and not yet on the national radar, she had taken a three-year contract to play for the Hokkaido Barbarians in Japan, where the owner, who she says called himself a “very rich guy,” told her about playing for the Hokkaido Barbarians in Japan. Sakura Sevens, Japanese national team. Simon has attended a few training camps.

“I coped well with training and then at the end of 2017 he asked me if I would play for Japan and I said, if I'm good enough for them to ask, maybe I'll be good enough for New Zealand. And I didn't want to cut that short. So, yeah, I was very close and they wanted us.” Going to camp the next week but I told him it was my decision to go home.

Double international legend Honey Hireme-Smiler, who first watched Simone play at Hamilton Girls' High School and could then see how others were drawn to her, was also in Japan with the Waikato touring team at the time Simone was making the decision.

“In her heart, she wanted to be the Black Fern, but Japan was giving her a chance, telling her she was absolutely good enough to wear the black jersey,” recalls Herimi Smiler. “Everyone says players can lose a bit of form in Japan, but she went from strength to strength and was attacking everyone. Soon after, she came back, and went straight to the pre-season tournament in the Waikato, and was, once again, the best player in that tournament.” Championship and I thought, 'Man, if people don't see it now…'

They saw it. Later that year, Simone was playing for Waikato and in 2019 she became a Blackfern, making her debut off the bench against the USA in San Diego. Simon had by then decided to join rugby, putting her teaching degree on hold even though she had not yet signed a contract with New Zealand Rugby.

Eventually, the contract that made her a full-time professional player came in 2020, and in 2022, Ruahi Demant asked her to co-lead the Black Ferns to the World Cup.

For the slow burn of your career, things escalated quickly.

Watching Simon play is enough to make anyone feel terrible. There is a ferocity and aggression that belies not just their size but their nature, a power that they usually keep in check, despite a yellow card at the World Cup finals. Hireme-Smiler says there has never been a player so aggressive on the field as the complete opposite of him, and she has never seen Simon so angry. Simone herself doesn't really know where this hunger comes from.

“I was talking to Ian [Saunders] “Our performance coach personally tested everyone and was like, ‘Man, you're a really nice person but you only know how to flip a switch.'” “He thinks it's about my competence, and I don't really want people to question that, which I definitely hate when people look at me and say, 'Oh, she's not even trying.'”

This is evident in a conversation Simone had with then New Zealand coach Wayne Smith when she found herself coming off the bench for the quarter-finals, semi-finals and final of the World Cup, having recovered in time from a knee injury. When Simon questioned the decision, he asked Smith if he trusted her…and the head coach's response was simple.

“He told me that if he didn't trust me, I wouldn't be on the team at all,” she says, getting the kind of validation she needed after suffering injury at different times in her career. “I've been through so much now that I feel good because I know my values, what I can add, and I know that everyone loves me for who I am. I only cause damage when I have the opportunity whether it's for eight minutes or 80.

Hireme-Smiler says the use of the word “love” is very similar to Simone.

“People say she leads with actions, but she also leads with her words, and her heart too, because she is so honest. Even if she has to call someone out, she does it in the most caring way possible,” she says.

Kennedy Simon Honey Herrem-Smiller

“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 just be on the field but in reality, 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 she's quite happy getting her work done and keeping herself to herself.

“She almost has a Sam Kane personality, you know, she just takes care of things, does her best and doesn't need to tell people about it because she knows she does. She just needs to prove herself to herself.”

Like Keane, Simon may also fit the 'strong and silent' mold of many New Zealand leaders, but with one key difference; Simon does not wear the captain's armband alone and sees joint captaincy of the Black Ferns with Demant as a “shared privilege”. However, she admits that she sometimes struggles with everything it entails.

“Just trying to balance being a leader, the best player I can be, managing our team off the field and making sure we're shooting on the field. It's a great job, it's the kind of pressure people only dream of and I'm lucky to have a great support system.”

The chief support officer is Simon's fiancée Solomon Tukwavu, who is himself a rugby player for the Highlanders. The pair have been together since high school and friends like Hireme-Smiler say they're the perfect foil for each other – the “sulli” comedian and someone who's a little more serious, but no less fun

“Yes, that sounds about right,” Simon laughs. “It just does what it does, and I think before I do it, but it's great for me when I have the devil on my shoulder, it'll give me a reason. And we're both obsessed with programming, so it works well.”

While Tukuafu is the rock, there is another person Simon credits with helping her get this far; Crystal Kua, current coach of Chiefs Manawa. Simon says Kawa was the first person to really see her rugby ability and did everything she could to foster it, often taking her to training or giving her her old boots when needed. Simone doubts that she would have achieved everything she has without Kaua, which is why she also wants to be “someone's Muzz” (Kaua's nickname), and help young people achieve their goals.

After a historic defeat to Canada in the Pacific Four series and losses to England and France in WXV, there is some soul searching going on in the Black Ferns. Simon knows that the external expectation is to achieve high standards and nothing less than to win. But she also feels there are important shifts in the performance culture and mindset of the team.

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

She uses words like “beautiful” and “love” to describe her team, her teammates, and her current lot in life. But ask what makes her thrive, what makes her happy, and Kennedy-Simon's two faces clash again.

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


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