Snuggling against her daddy's tattooed torso, Ardie Savea's little princess Kobe peacefully poses for intimate Woman's Day portraits – before cheekily taking a poop on the athlete's bare bod while nappy-less! Many new fathers might grimace, but the 24-year-old Hurricanes and All Blacks loose forward cracks up, cleans the mess and carries on unfazed.
Such setbacks are easily taken in his stride following an epic 20 months, which have seen Ardie make his test debut with the All Blacks, launch a business, get engaged to Saskia Hartmann-Hechenberger and tackle parenthood.
But for a moment, everything hung in the balance as the couple welcomed their 4.13kg daughter following a gruelling 18-hour labour, only to have her whisked away.
"I watch movies and babies come out crying, but she wasn't," recalls Ardie.
"She took longer than average to start breathing, so they rushed her away and I was thinking, 'Oh no.' They got her breathing, then she was in ICU for three nights with tubes in her so they could monitor her. The toughest part was that we couldn't hold her for the first two days.
"When I did get to hold her, I got emotional looking at her and thinking, 'Wow, that's me. I created her with Sas.' I shed a few tears and gave her heaps of kisses. It was one of the best moments of my life and tops any rugby victories."
It was after returning from a rugby trip to Brisbane that Ardie found a pregnancy test on the kitchen bench of their Wellington home and Saskia crying in joy.
"It was a special moment because so many guys on the team were becoming new fathers and telling us their stories, so I was so excited," he recalls proudly.
Making the news more special, Ardie's older brother and teammate Julian and his wife Fatima had also just discovered they were pregnant with their daughter Jude, who was born two days before Kobe.
"While I was in labour, Ardie's mum was going back and forth between us," recalls Saskia, 23.
"It was so cool," adds Ardie. "Jules and Fatima were just down the hallway.
"When the girls get older, they'll be besties," he says, smiling down at his darling daughter.
"You guys will get up to mischief!"
Despite initially having his heart set on a son, Ardie's now completely smitten with his "daddy's girl" and was so overwhelmed with joy that he proposed to Saskia just days after her arrival.
Having bought a diamond in South Africa, he dropped to one knee while the couple were at home with Kobe and their pet husky dogs.
"Ardie's pretty bad at hiding stuff," laughs Saskia, who suspected the big moment was coming. "I had an awful dream years ago that he proposed with a piece of barbed wire, so I had saved all these nice ring photos just in case."
For the couple's loved ones, it was about time the pair got engaged. After all, they'd been dating since Saskia was 15 and Ardie was 16.
"We were at Reading Cinemas in Courtenay Place and I saw this beautiful blonde girl and asked for her number," Ardie reminisces.
"No, you got your cousin to ask for you!" corrects his fiancée. "Then he didn't believe my name was Saskia. He thought I'd made up a foreign name."
Initially friends, it wasn't until a year later that they started hanging out more. Then one day, during a pre-Christmas stroll, Ardie declared, "We go out, OK?" – officially making them an item. It was a case of opposites attract as their relationship grew, with Saskia admitting she couldn't be less sporty.
"Not one athletic bone in her," chuckles Ardie.
But while she may not love sport, it was Saskia's unwavering support of Ardie's rugby ambitions which strengthened their bond as they grew into adults.
"She understood my sporting commitments and was really supportive, and that's what attracted me to her because a lot of people wouldn't understand," he says. "She supported me hard-out and that was a big tick. I don't know where I'd be if she hadn't been there.
"I don't think I'd be in this house right now," adds Ardie, looking around the Miramar home where they moved in together three years ago.
"I grew up in a Pacific Island family and didn't know much about financial education," he explains. "So having her there as I started getting money chucked at me helped because I would have been splashing it out everywhere otherwise. She's kept me grounded and been there through the good and bad."
With Ardie making his debut for Wellington at 18, before joining the Hurricanes and making his All Blacks debut in 2016, Saskia didn't anticipate his career escalating so rapidly. She also wasn't prepared for the spotlight that comes with being an All Black girlfriend.
"As soon as you make the All Blacks, it's like boom," tells Ardie.
"That's something Sas had to get used to quickly – walking down the street and having people stop me. It's a big learning curve, but we've embraced it now."
As for having females throwing themselves at her hunk, she isn't bothered.
"It's definitely weird, but it doesn't happen that often when I'm with him. If it did, I'd probably just shove them out of the way!" declares Saskia, who has a Bachelor of Commerce in Management, Economics and Criminology, and helps to run her hunky fiancé's fashion line, Ardie Savea Clothing.
While stints apart can be tough, Saskia says, "You get sick of each other after a point – you're annoying sometimes! But it actually helps that he goes away because you appreciate your relationship more when you're alone."
While they anticipate distance being harder with Ardie now travelling for the first time since Kobe's birth, the couple are ready for video calls and excited to make their family unit official with their summer wedding.
"It'll be really special to have Kobe there," says Ardie, before cooing, "You'll be with Daddy, watching Mummy come down the aisle, aye bubba?!"
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