Rugby News caught up with Kendra Cocksedge 10 days after the dramatic end to her rugby career, culminating in a third Rugby World Cup triumph before a record women’s rugby crowd at Eden Park. It had, of course, been something of a whirlwind 10 days. Well-wishers have been queuing up. Cocksedge herself was moved to post online a heartfelt tribute to rugby and what it has given her since she first played as a nipper. She even ran into a woman in the supermarket who said she never watched rugby until she saw the Black Ferns strut their stuff at the Rugby World Cup and was inspired by a group of wāhine who played with joy in their hearts and wings on their heels.
That Cocksedge, Black Fern No 142, will go down as the finest Black Ferns halfback of all time almost goes without saying, and that is with due respect to Monique Hirovanaa and Emma Jensen, two heady but different players who paved the way for the girl from the ‘Naki to carve out a 15-year international career. Since way back in 2007 when she came off the bench against the Wallaroos at Whanganui’s Cooks Gardens and passed the ball to Anna Richards, the greatest Black Ferns No 10, Cocksedge has been a fixture. She needed patience, though, not cementing that No 9 jersey until 2014.
But her rugby nous, her wide skillset (which included accurate short-range goalkicking) and her resourcefulness have served her and the Black Ferns well through the (mostly) highs of international rugby. Two things struck me about those last heady eight days and two matches of the Rugby World Cup – how high she jumped at fulltime in the semifinal against France and how relaxed she was walking out of the team hotel onto the bus before the final against England. Adrenaline can make you do feats that seem improbable, like it did when Stacey Fluhler, broken ankle and all, ran onto the field at the last whistle of the final. “I jumped that high and then I fell to the ground and just about needed carrying off,” says Cocksedge. “That just showed you what that game meant to us. I was absolutely pumped. I didn’t think (Caroline Drouin) was going to miss that kick. There was a lot going through my head.”
The margins can be small at the top. That France semifinal was always going to be D-day for the Black Ferns. Then they had to do it all again a week later. But you would not have known it by how relaxed the team was heading to Eden Park and how they seemed to be walking towards the pressure, despite being underdogs against a team that had won 30 straight games.
“We had a lot of conversations leading into Rugby World Cup about having a World Cup at home, It was about embracing that and enjoying the event and occasion. All the girls were so relaxed, even on the morning of the final. Lisa Carrington popped in to pick up one of Ruby’s (Tui) books. She couldn’t believehow relaxed the girls were,” she says.
That’s why they were able to cope with a 14-0 deficit and three lineout-driven tries, and still reply with six scores of their own and have the wherewithal to come up with the right play in the clutch.
“We talked about going up (and challenging the English) lineout the whole game and we didn’t. It probably worked for us in the end with the element of surprise. When Krystal (Murray) caught the ball and tried to stay in, I just said ‘Get tackled out!’ I couldn’t think of a better way to beat England. They scored three lineout-drive tries in the final alone.”
It was Cocksedge’s second fairytale finish in two months, having taken a seat with the Farah Palmer Cup final safe in the bag, Canterbury’s fifth, against Auckland in September. It was apt that Rugby Park had been renamed for the day as Te Ohaere-Fox-Cocksedge Park in honour of her and her veteran teammate Stephanie Te Ohaere-Fox.
In a glittering career, in which Cocksedge has become the most decorated player in the women’s game (including eight Canterbury club titles), the highlights and standouts are myriad.
“This World Cup has been absolutely incredible. I was concerned myself that we wouldn’t be able to fill Eden Park, but we got to that opener and there were 34,000 there. I got to experience the amateur to the professional, but this has been something else. To be the first team to win a World Cup at home would definitely be a career highlight,” she says.
A low point was the 2021 northern tour when Cocksedge was struggling with a family tragedy and her forward pack was in reverse mode. Even Wayne Smith, in reviewing the tour when he sat down in the hot seat, questioned whether Cocksedge would make the World Cup.
“We all know we weren’t up to scratch. We just hadn’t played enough rugby, right? We weren’t using that as an excuse, but it just came down to that. It’s challenging as a nine when your pack is going backwards but I reflected over summer that individually I wasn’t good enough. We all got to that point. That was my drive. I wanted to win a World Cup on home turf. I knew I was going to be retiring (though that was not announced until September).”
The Black Ferns, funnily enough, have always played open, expansive rugby, but it has been underpinned by structure. Smith changed all that, and it needed a shift in thinking from his charges.
“I play better when I can play. On the 2021 tour I became a halfback that was just passing or doing box kicks that weren’t even getting us any ground. My running game came back in. My whole vision and kicking abilities came back in. First thing Smithy said to me was ‘We’re getting rid of the box kick.’ I agreed with him. I’ve never really been a contestable box kick kind of person. I prefer kicking for territory.”
Cocksedge mixed up her game cleverly. We saw more quick taps, as was evident against France in the semi. Her best display of the season probably came in Christchurch, just her second Test at home. The Black Ferns beat the Wallaroos 52-5 in compelling style but there were just 4000 watching it. That changed too.
Playing with co-captain Ruahei Demant, now the World Rugby player of the year, was a revelation. Thought to be more of a second five, Demant exuded calm and took the ball hard to the line before offloading, as well as passing with precision.
“She’s a fantastic player and I really enjoyed playing with her. She can see a lot. She’s very calm, reminded me of a Dan Carter and how calm he was on the field. Her running game was hard to defend and she was doing cross-kicks at the same time. She added a lot more tools to her toolbox this year.”
Cocksedge leaves the No 9 jersey in good hands. There is the young comer Ariana Bayler and the smart veteran Arihiana Marino-Tauhinu from the World Cup squad.
“There are some other young girls coming through like Maia Joseph, who is talented. I’m proud of the way that Ariana has come on after a few injuries. I’m looking forward to seeing how she progresses over the next few years. She has the basics. Arihiana brings that flair off the bench, that running game with sneaky offloads.
“It was time to step down. I thought about it in 2017 but thought that there weren’t many halfbacks coming through. Now I feel really confident,” says Cocksedge.
Regrets, there are few. She’s won everything there is on offer, including a Rugby World Cup Sevens championship in 2013. Everything bar a Super Rugby Aupiki title with Matatū.
“I got Covid and only played one game, so I had to make sure I was confident hanging up the boots having played just one game for them. I feel like I want to give back to them in another way.”
Cocksedge, while she was paid as a fulltime pro this year, is in fact the NZR women’s participation manager for the South Island, which means she will be busy in 2023 with travel and the fact that thousands more girls and women will be signing up for rugby in March/April.
Coaching is an option. Her knowledge is priceless and she is good mates with Whitney Hansen, who made huge strides as the Black Ferns forwards coach this season. Cocksedge says they have talked about coaching together, and she jokes that she needs to see if she would be any good at it.
In the meantime, Cocksedge is not one to blob out on the couch. She is an active relaxer and has already bought a new squash racket to get back to the court. Touch is on the menu, perhaps some social cricket or netball, maybe some mountain biking. Snowboarding and skiing are options now that she doesn’t have to worry about breaking her leg for rugby.
“I’ll be staying active. I’d probably go insane if I didn’t.”
Furthermore, from our February/March issue, she will be joining the Rugby News team as a monthly columnist.
Home will continue to be Christchurch, where she bought a house in 2020, though her family hails from Taranaki.
She will look forward in time. But for now, Cocksedge will look back one last time at a remarkable six weeks for women’s rugby, women’s sport and New Zealand sport in general, a joyous time that brought new fans and renewed optimism into the game.
“I already thought it was a fairytale finish being in a Rugby World Cup final at Eden Park with a sellout crowd. To win it really topped it off. It was incredible. I couldn’t think of a better way to go out.”
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