When Kendra Cocksedge started playing rugby at the age of four, she always found herself on the field surrounded by boys.
Fast forward to 2019 and the 31-year-old sports star is still competing and winning against the guys. Last year she became the first female to be awarded the Kelvin R Tremain Memorial Player of the Year gong at the New Zealand Rugby Awards, beating All Blacks Brodie Retallick, Richie Mo'unga and Codie Taylor.
"I fell in love with rugby from the moment I started playing," recalls Kendra. "Winning Player of the Year – words can't describe what an amazing feeling that was. When you're up against three All Blacks who had a superb year too, and to be the first female to do it, it's something I'll live with for the rest of my life. That's history mate!"
Looking back on all her milestones, the New Plymouth-born Black Fern can't believe how far she's come. Kendra made her debut in the black jersey in 2007, aged just 19, and since then she's gone on to win two Women's Rugby World Cups, a Rugby World Cup Sevens crown.
This year she played her 50th test – only the second Black Fern to have the honour - and received her 50th test cap from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at last week's Bledisloe Cup decider at Eden Park.
"I still vividly remember getting that phone call in 2007," tells Kendra of receiving her call up to the team.
"I'd just moved down to Lincoln University and started playing for Canterbury. I remember sitting in my room in the Halls of Residence and I started crying. My door was open and one of my good mates was in the room across from me. She came to check on me and asked if I was alright, and I was like, 'I just made the Black Ferns!'"
Growing up on a Taranaki farm, Kendra says she always wanted to be outside, and struggled with school and having to sit still in a classroom. When she wasn't playing rugby, she spent her summers on the cricket field, playing for Central Districts, until she reached a point where she had to choose between the two sports.
But despite her longtime love of rugby, Kendra never had a female player to look up to and instead always thought she'd play for the All Blacks!
"I didn't know a lot about the Black Ferns, but I watched the All Blacks constantly in the middle of the night when they played in the UK," she explains.
"Growing up, I always wanted to be a professional rugby player and I just didn't know that I couldn't play for the All Blacks when I was young. It wasn't until I reached high school that I really discovered the Black Ferns and the possibilities there."
Despite all her accolades and the many legends she's worked with – including a private practice and kicking session with former All Black Dan Carter early on in her career – when she's asked who's been the biggest influence in shaping her career, it's an easy answer. It's her family.
"For my mum and dad to be able to give me the opportunity to play rugby with boys when it really wasn't accepted, that's very cool," she enthuses.
"My three sisters are also my number-one supporters; they're constantly at games when they can. They were probably more emotional than me when I won the award last year! My twin sister was with me and she was the one bawling her eyes out, and I was like, 'What are you crying for?'"
Kendra is one of the few Kiwi women who has been able to make a full-time career out of rugby. When she's not busy training for the Black Ferns, she's working in Christchurch as the women's rugby development manager for the Crusader region. Now she hopes she can be the role model she never had for other young girls.
"I live and breathe rugby every day," Kendra grins. "When I first came into the role as a development manager, there was a bit of hesitation around how it would work, me playing for the Black Ferns and working in it. But not a day goes by that I don't love getting out of bed to go to work.
"I love it so much and I want to make a difference in terms of being a role model for young female rugby players – to be able to give them an opportunity to play the game that New Zealand loves.
"I want to help others live the dream that I get to live every day."
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