Kelly Brazier looks back fondly on the day she made her Black Ferns debut. Lining up at full-back, barely two weeks after her 20th birthday, she helped New Zealand beat England 16-3 as gusty winds whipped through Esher RFC.

More than 11 years on, and despite winning Rugby World Cup, RWC Sevens and Commonwealth Games titles, that first taste of test rugby remains her proudest moment on the pitch.

“The first time I got to wear the black jersey was a massive highlight, something I had worked my whole life towards,” Brazier told World Rugby.

“When I pulled it on I just knew that was where I wanted to be.”

Brazier is now one of the elder stateswomen in the Black Ferns set-up, but as she prepares for a packed two-year schedule she has been energised by the influx of young talent into the squad. 

Manaia Nuku was the latest uncapped player to be called into the Black Ferns Sevens squad last month, and will hope to make a similar impact to Jazmin Hotham, Dhys Faleafaga, Mahina Paul and Risaleaana Pouri-Lane — none of whom have yet turned 21.

“She's unreal, to be honest, just mature beyond her years,” Brazier said of Nuku, 18. 

“It's scary, but exciting at the same time to think of the talent that we have coming through in New Zealand now.

“Girls are starting at a younger age and she's probably the first one of that sort of next cycle to come through. And just already, her skills, her knowledge of the game is [second] to none. 

“So, we're just letting her thrive in the environment at the moment and letting her be herself. And, yeah, I can't wait to see what's to come from Manaia.”

She added: “For myself, I guess, I've been [in the Black Ferns Sevens set-up] eight or nine years now, and that's kind of just my daily routine. 

“But, when you see a young player like that come in and just the buzz and the feeling, the smile on her face, that kind of thing, it takes you back to when I first got [my call-up] and why we play the game.”

Becoming a mother

Brazier plays rugby, she says, “because I love it”, and is eager to explore the possibility of competing at both Tokyo 2020 and RWC 2021 later this year. 2022 should be no less hectic with a Commonwealth Games and RWC Sevens on the horizon.

The past year has, of course, been a lot quieter, with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic causing the postponement of the Olympic Games and cancellation of HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series events.

Being locked down in New Zealand did come with some considerable benefits for Brazier, however, following the birth of her and wife, Tahlia’s first child, Oakley, last February.

“It was tough having sort of no support, just me and my wife,” she said. “She's pretty close with her family who live up here. So, to just be the three of us, for weeks on end was tough with the little one.

“But, I guess in hindsight for myself now it's been wicked, the time I've actually got to spend at home. He's going to be one in a couple of weeks and I've only had to spend three nights away, whereas if COVID hadn't have happened, look, I was going to be gone for months.

Sevens uncovered: Kelly Brazier
Listen to the ups and downs of New Zealand's Kelly Brazier career in this episode of sevens uncovered

“And, I think it would have been really tough on my partner at home. So, in hindsight now, looking back, I'm actually stoked that I was able to be here and support and help out, and actually see his first year.”

Equally, Tahlia and Oakley were on hand to help motivate Brazier during early morning training sessions in those first months of lockdown. 

“We would just walk down the road literally a couple hundred metres to the local field,” she added. “They would help me time or yell at me and, yeah, definitely cheer me on. They were always there and pushing me.”

Going for gold

Fast forward 11 months or so and Brazier is back with the Black Ferns Sevens squad following a Christmas break spent with family and friends, including long-time team-mate Sarah Hirini.

The lack of World Series action in the last year means it is difficult to gauge where teams are ahead of the Olympics. But Brazier is confident the depth of talent in New Zealand will prove vital to their hopes of landing gold.

“We are lucky here in New Zealand,” she said. “Even within our squad, the competition is so high. So, it's pretty competitive and I think we're playing games against each other that are just as tough as if we were playing on the World Series. 

“So, I think it's for us, how do we not get complacent and keep that level and standard high and just keep being driven to push each other?”

If the Black Ferns do need external motivation on the road to Tokyo, it should come from the feeling of losing the gold medal match to Australia five years ago.

Brazier says the overall experience in Rio, and watching fellow Kiwi athletes miss out on medals altogether, helped the players realise silver was “something to actually be proud of”.

But, there is also a sense of unfinished business. “It's definitely the one thing that's eluded a few of us that have been here for a few years, but I think probably the biggest thing is we knew we weren't in the best place going into Rio,” Brazier said. 

“We knew we didn't play our best rugby, and that's something that we can control. So, there's definitely steps we're taking now as to, if we can go out on that field and walk off knowing we've played our best rugby, then I have no doubt that we're more than capable to get the gold medal.”

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