Ahead of their test against England this weekend (2.30pm, Sunday, BBC 2) we spoke to New Zealand's Kelly Brazier.
Kelly Brazier’s rugby CV marks her out as surely one of, if not the, greatest women’s rugby players ever.
To recap on her 12 year international career, she’s won two Olympic medals – a gold and silver, two World Cup titles, two World Cup Sevens titles, a Commonwealth Games Gold and six Sevens World Series titles.
What’s more astonishing about this is that she is nailed on to add to this, with plans, all going well, to compete next year in three pinnacle events – a sevens and a fifteens World Cup, and a Commonwealth Games, with her eye firmly on being part of the next Olympic cycle too.
That she isn’t the more feted for her achievements is in part down to her own sometime introvert, sometime laid-back nature, though Brazier has grown into becoming a strong and vocal leader in every team she plays for and is building an impressive coaching career.
Finding her voice has taken time.
“It has taken me a number of years to get to that,” she says.
“I remember vividly in my first cap, against England in 2009, I spoke to one person and one person only and that was Carla Hohepa because we had lived together in Dunedin. That was why I had to play fullback because I didn’t talk as a first five so – so yes it took me a number of years to become confident and speak up, but that is a role I have evolved in over the years. I am really comfortable now to be a leader in the team and help the younger players coming through.”
On the eve of a four-test series against England and France, Brazier now speaks eloquently about the growth of the women’s game and about her own reflections on recent successes, particularly the Olympic gold.
“The disappointment of Rio was massive. To fall one short was devastating so that’s what has driven us the last five years. I still find it surreal to look back and now say – we actually did it. I still pinch myself when I think of it.”
The team has not yet been able to celebrate.
“It was tough to be honest,” Brazier explains.
“When we got back, we had to do two weeks in quarantine and the girls were pretty excited on day fourteen to get back home to the family and we had a few celebrations planned, and within 48 hours we had gone into another lockdown, so we were just all in our own houses for a few more weeks. By that time girls had gone back home, and we were spread over the country so we still haven’t been able to celebrate as a squad.
“They are trying to plan some things for us, which will be great as we have some management moving on too and it will be good to catch up with the rest of the squad too who didn’t get to Tokyo. It was a massive achievement so it’s something we will want to celebrate.”
As for her glittering CV of honours, Brazier, 31, is clear she wants to play and win as much as she can while she still can.
“I am still loving the game and I want to be involved as much as possible. I guess I am greedy. I am getting a bit older so the body is not able to do everything I used to do but I am trying to train smarter so I can play for as long as I can. Those three pinnacle events next year – well I want to put my hand up for all of those and in the back of my head and I would like to do another Olympics too.
“I started in the 15s and I’ve gotten used to going back and forth though it’s not the easiest now as things get more and more professional. It is completely different the training. Sure, it’s the same field and same ball but not a lot other than that. A lot of what we do in sevens is behind the gain line, but in 15s everything is right at that line, so you have to almost retrain and think totally differently and forget everything you have learned so for a number of us it takes a few games and sessions to get back into it but that’s the challenge we are up for.
The delay to the Olympics did come with one silver lining for Brazier, following the birth of her and wife, Tahlia’s first child, Oakley, last February. On tour now for over a month, she admits saying goodbye has been hard but that having the year together has made it that bit easier.
“It is never nice saying goodbye. I love every second I get with him, but I look back in hindsight how much harder it would have been had the Olympics not been postponed. When Oakley was born, I would have been away that entire first year which would have been really hard for Tahlia. We have now got a really good routine with him and he’s like clockwork.
“We have a lot of support from family and friends, and one of my best friends Sarah Hirini (the New Zealand 7s captain) comes and takes him once a week while I am over here. That support makes it easier on my wife and the technology helps too.”
The Black Ferns take on England this weekend, having not played a game in over two years, whereas their hosts come in with 14 tests under their belts since.
Brazier says the games are even more anticipated as a result and that they are a vital step in the build-up to next year’s World Cup.
“It’s been a long break. The camp is full of excitement, and we have 12 newbies here and they bring loads of energy. These games for us are massive. These are four internationals against two quality sides and on any given day any of us could win. The next four weeks will be hard but in terms of building for next year we couldn’t ask for any more.”
With England fully professional and the Black Ferns now also on contracts, albeit not fulltime, Brazier, who wins her 40th cap this weekend, is well placed to comment on the ongoing development of the game.
“It’s crazy to see where it’s gone. I grew up being the only girl who played rugby where I lived so now you turn up to the local field and there are four girls teams training against the boys and in New Zealand we’ve got a Super Rugby competition for women coming up. The game has taken massive strides and with a home World Cup next year it is really exciting to be part of.”
Travelling to Europe from New Zealand has been something of a shock to the system for the squad, who have had to adjust to the different Covid-19 restrictions compared to back home.
“For our whole group it has been quite bizarre. We have been back at home in lockdown, and we get around 100 cases a day in Auckland and the whole city is locked down and we landed here and I think it was 60,000 cases and seeing people around with no masks, it definitely feels different. For us though we just have to do what we can so we can all get to play and not have any problems. We are pretty much in our own bubble. We don’t venture too far other than the bus, rugby field and the hotel. We did get a restaurant this week which we were able to book out.”
Finally a world on England this weekend.
“I love playing England and you want test games to be tough and they always are. There has never been much between us and that goes to show the physicality of the games between us. The girls are excited. We have been watching film of them and seeing their games. We know we have to be top notch against them if we want to get a result.”