After a decade playing top level rugby, All Black star Sam Cane certainly knows a thing or two about competitiveness. Fighting his way back after a horror neck injury last year, he's in his ninth season with the Chiefs and has his eye firmly on his second World Cup. But when it comes to wanting to win, Sam tells us there's no-one as fierce as his future wife Harriet Allen.
"She's the most competitive person I've ever met – and that's saying a lot considering the sorts of people I hang out with," Sam laughs.
"She's a nightmare – we can't even play board games or cards because if she loses, she storms off and won't talk to me for an hour!"
But as they welcome Woman's Day into the Hamilton home they share with their pooch Willow, it's clear that the laugh-a-minute pair are a perfect match.
With wedding planning in full swing and their house build in its final stages, they'd be forgiven for being a little stressed. But loose forward Sam's broken neck has put things firmly in perspective.
"It definitely reminded us what's important in life," says kindergarten teacher Harriet, as she reflects on the last year.
She'll never forget the midnight phone call from a Pretoria hospital in October, telling her that Sam had suffered a broken vertebra and would have to undergo major surgery.
"I freaked out – my mind just flashed ahead to him never being able to walk again and spending the rest of his life in a wheelchair," recalls Harriet, 23, who'd watched the game at home on TV.
"I was so upset because he was so far away and I just wanted to be there with him."
For 27-year-old Sam, it was a sobering reminder of just how quickly life can change.
"When they saw the results of my scan, it became serious really fast," he tells.
"The doctors rushed in and put me in a stable neck brace, and were running their hands over my feet and hands, asking if I could feel anything. I remember thinking, 'Whoa, this is scary.'"
He'll be forever grateful to Harriet and his mum Kathy, who flew to South Africa to be at his side, staying with him for several weeks until he was well enough to return home.
Harriet – who graduated as an early childhood teacher last year – has been a constant support, encouraging him as he prepared for his first game back with the Chiefs last month.
Unable to drive for several months, however, Sam admits he was starting to go a little stir crazy at home.
"I was doing weird things like cleaning out the pantry for fun," he laughs. "Harriet would come home from work and I'd proudly show her all the little things I'd achieved. It was definitely time for me to get back to rugby! I was a bit nervous in that first game, but it's all good now. I'm just stoked to be back into it."
Harriet, though, admits she can't help but worry when Sam heads out on the field.
"When he's down on the ground, I have that little moment of fear until he gets back up again," she admits.
"And it's definitely got worse after what happened. But I can't let the worrying take over because mainly I'm just super-proud of Sam and the fact he's out there doing what he loves."
It's almost four years since the couple first met in a crowded Hamilton bar one Saturday night. Sam had spied the gorgeous brunette across the room, but before he could muster the courage to introduce himself, Harriet marched over and asked if he was single.
"You don't come across that sort of confidence every day!" laughs Sam.
"We got chatting and just totally clicked. I thought she was awesome."
After exchanging phone numbers, the smitten pair met up again several days later and were soon inseparable. As well as her confidence and endless energy, Sam also loved the fact his new girlfriend had very little interest in rugby.
"She didn't even know what a knock-on was! But that appealed to me because I knew she was interested in me for the right reasons."
The young lovebirds' romance moved quickly and Harriet knew Sam was "the one" when he gave her Willow, a black schnauzer puppy as a surprise for her 21st birthday.
"That was one of the best days of my life," she enthuses.
"He couldn't have chosen a better present for me because I'm obsessed with dogs. And Willow is amazing – she's our baby. She's so spoilt."
A year later, Sam outdid himself again when he surprised his lady-love with a romantic marriage proposal. But keeping his plans secret was no easy task, tells Sam, who bought the stunning diamond four months earlier during a rugby trip to South Africa.
"I had to find a hiding place she wouldn't find, which was hard because she's so nosy," he says.
"Nothing gets past her. So I put it up in the roof, but when I went to get it again, it had disappeared. I had a massive panic before I remembered I'd moved it to my gun safe."
After plenty of not-so-subtle hints from Harriet about the sort of ring she'd one day like, Sam had a good idea when it came to choosing a design. And when Harriet booked the luxury Treetops Lodge in Rotorua for a weekend away last July, he knew it was the perfect moment to pop the question.
"It was a good move from him," tells Harriet, "because if he'd organised something like that himself, I would have known he was up to something. I had no idea."
The day of the proposal started with a mountain bike ride, followed by a bush walk to a stunning waterfall. Earlier, Sam had phoned Harriet's dad Andrew to ask for his blessing.
"That was really awesome because he was so stoked for us," shares Sam. "He told me to go for it and I just felt super-excited after that."
Ducking out of sight behind a tree, Sam managed to tie the engagement ring to some fishing line, which he then attached to his finger. Dropping it into a shallow pool, he called Harriet over and suggested she have a drink of the fresh water.
"She said, 'No thanks, I'm not thirsty.' But I was like, 'Go on, you have to!' I wouldn't let up," Sam tells. "So she bent down and I pointed out something sparkling in the water, then I dropped to one knee."
Hugs, tears and a definite "yes" followed – and the couple are now excitedly counting down to their summer wedding. But first, they're looking forward to moving into the dream home they're building on a rural Waikato section, where they hope to raise their future children one day, with animals, fresh air and plenty of space to roam.
"Harriet and I have the same values," concludes Sam. "Family is really important to both of us and we want the same things in life. We're lucky we found each other."
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