Like any long-term couple, Black Ferns great Kennedy Simon and her fiancé have their tense moments, but very rarely do things ever escalate in their rock-steady relationship, thanks to fellow rugby star Solomone Tukuafu's playful sense of humour.
"Solly has three missing teeth, so if I'm ever mad at him, he'll whip out his plate to reveal a very goofy, gummy grin," smiles the Ferns co-captain. "It cracks me up without fail, to the point I can't possibly be cross with him any more."
It's this very childlike cheekiness that Chiefs prop Solly has always deployed to win over his girl, but as 16-year-olds, when the couple first met in their hometown of Hamilton, it took Kennedy quite some time to cotton on to his charming moves.
"All my mates had boyfriends, but I was only interested in rugby," says the 27-year-old, who made her Black Ferns debut in 2019. "I didn't have time to be in a relationship and was so naïve back then that I didn't even notice Solly liked me. He was an absolute clown and we always had fun together, but I thought we were just really good friends who both loved code."
The truth is Solly's affections ran much, much deeper than sport alone and, for months, the playful prankster, also 27, attempted to steal Kennedy's heart by finding any excuse to spend time with her, dropping her to school, picking her up from practice and becoming a constant fixture on the sideline at her games.
"One day, Solly said he wanted to do things properly and asked if I'd go out for dinner with him," recalls Kennedy. "I remember thinking, 'Do what properly?' but we went out and had a really great time, like we always did.
"After dinner, he took me on the longest drive and I thought he must've been lost, but it turns out he was trying to find the courage to ask me to be his girlfriend. When he eventually asked, I laughed because I thought he was joking, but we've been happily together ever since."
Indeed, it's been almost 10 years to the day – 27 November 2013 – that Solly and Kennedy finally made things official. From high-school sweethearts to Aotearoa's rugby power couple, the pair have packed a lot into their decade of love, both pursuing their sporting dreams here and in Japan, buying their first home and topping it all off with a romantic engagement, with their wedding on the cards for this summer.
"Solly and I were just kids when we met," smiles Kennedy. "We've done a lot of growing together and built a beautiful life along the way. Ask anyone and they'll say Solly lights up every room he walks into. He's funny, friendly and doesn't take life too seriously.
"We had two very different upbringings – I was an independent kid raised by my adoring grandparents. My nana passed away when I was young. She was my light.
"Solly grew up on the farm with two loving parents and it opened my eyes to a different way of life. Meeting Solly felt like home, like finding the one I knew I would always be able to depend on."
With two impressive sporting resumés, it's unsurprising a lot of their relationship revolves around the great game. The pair work, train and carpool together to their unconventional office at Stadium Waikato, making a conscious effort to limit rugby chat in their downtime.
"Solly is an absolute code-head – he could talk about rugby all day, every day," tells Kennedy. "We count ourselves lucky we've built careers out of the game we love and finding someone who speaks your language in the high-pressure world of high-performance sport is a great support.
"Solly understands what it takes to compete at this level and vice versa, so we are each other's biggest cheerleaders in the good times and bad."
It was following a particularly tough patch in 2021, when the Black Ferns suffered successive defeats to England on an international tour, that Solly decided to pop the question on a spontaneous getaway to Slipper Island, aka Whakahau, off the coast of the Coromandel Peninsula. The couple happened to be the only ones on the idyllic isle when Solly got down on bended knee during their sunrise beach walk.
"I bawled the whole way through – it was absolutely perfect," says Kennedy, who admits she never saw the romantic proposal coming, despite the fact they'd talked about marriage many times.
"Solly whisked me away knowing I needed some time to unwind and regather, and to end on such a high turned a really tough time into a moment I'll never forget."
As for wedding plans, the couple had hoped to tie the knot last year but pulled the pin on their venue booking, deciding to use the funds for a deposit on their dream house instead. Sadly, neither the new home nor their nuptials were meant to be, but now the date's set for them to exchange vows in early 2024 – even if there's still a lot of planning to do.
"After the disappointment of the house and the false start, neither of us want to wait any longer," says Kennedy. "We aren't thinking anything too extravagant, but it'll be a chance to dress up, and celebrate with whānau and friends. However the day turns out, it will be just perfect because I'll be lucky enough to marry my best friend."
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