After years of knock-backs and disappointment, Kendra Reynolds has powered her way into the Black Ferns to defend the Rugby World Cup. And the resilient No.7, whose job off the field was to ignite a fire for rugby in women and girls, is now leading by example.
The Black Ferns call them the 'sparkplugs' – the players warming the bench ready to ignite the game the moment they take the field.
Kendra Reynolds has become possibly the most spirited of the Ferns' sparkplugs. The No.7 immediately makes her presence felt whenever she's injected into the starting line-up. Whether it's a powerful run with the ball in hand, or a bruising tackle stopping the opposition in their tracks.
"She's a great starting player, but when she comes off the bench, she makes such an impact," her Black Ferns co-captain, and good mate, Kennedy Simon, says. "She catches your attention straight away."
And Reynolds has come to understand and accept being a reserve has its own importance.
"It's really special being a sparkplug - you sit on the bench, getting hot, reading the game so you can do the right thing as soon as you get on," she says. "You can really influence the game with your energy."
And with Simon nursing a calf injury, Reynolds could even make the starting XV for the Black Ferns' opening Rugby World Cup match against the Wallaroos at Auckland's Eden Park on Saturday.
Off the field, Reynolds has a laugh that brightens a room. She's exuberant and funny – Alana Bremner, her Matatū captain, calls her the "fizzer" of the team - but she's also big-hearted, selfless and insightful.
Her passion for rugby extends well beyond the playing field. Her former colleagues at Bay of Plenty Rugby say Reynolds has "ignited a fire for rugby in hundreds, if not thousands, of girls and young women."
She'd like to do that again by simply playing her dynamic game during the Rugby World Cup, hoping to inspire a new generation of female rugby players.
But she hasn't always been this fervent about the game - there have been plenty of times over the last seven years the 29-year-old has considered quitting, frustrated when she couldn't break her way into the Black Ferns squad.
A switch from flanker to hooker – when she wasn't sure if she was playing in the right position – led to a spinal injury and almost extinguished her love for the game.
Fortunately for the Black Ferns, Reynolds got her opportunity to prove herself on last year's Northern Tour, and she hasn't looked back since.
"It's been a journey of resilience and perseverance for me," she says. "But whether it's black jersey or battling in the Bay colours, I just love the game. And right now, I'm a Black Fern, this is me, and I'm loving it."
Black Fern #220, Reynolds made her debut in the black jersey at Stade Pierre-Fabre against the French women last November. She came off the bench for 10 minutes, in the fourth loss on a harsh end-of-season tour – one that led to major changes in the Black Ferns environment and a significant shift in the team's culture.
"That first game was a special moment for me, and for a lot of the girls who've been on the journey with me too," says Reynolds, who can't bring herself to watch the unforgettable video of her screaming and crying when she was named in the team.
"Sometimes when we just look at results, we can forget about moments like that."
But she says she didn't truly feel like a Black Fern until this season.
"It wasn't when I played my first test match, or did my first haka. It was this year when I felt confident to speak in front of the group," Reynolds says.
"At home, I'm a big loud voice. It was funny - people would see me in my Bay of Plenty environment, and I'd come into Black Ferns and be a different person because I wasn't confident enough to be who I am.
"But this year the whole team has been on a journey in embracing who you are and having the confidence to be that."
Reynolds grew up immersed in women's rugby. Her cousin, Kellie Kiwi, was a Black Fern halfback, who starred in their 1998 Rugby World Cup victory and was pivotal in growing the sevens game in New Zealand.
Kiwi lived in Papamoa then, where Reynolds grew up, and brought some of her Black Ferns team-mates to Papamoa Primary.
"There were a lot of girls who didn't know about women's rugby, but I knew it," Reynolds, who's Ngāti Ranginui, says.
"I remember watching a few of Kellie's games but coverage of the game was poor back then, so it was more stories about her on the marae. Last month, we were on the marae together – Kellie's moved home from Australia now – and we got to talking about rugby.
"She's a big supporter of me and the Black Ferns. We have a very special connection."
Despite that whānau bond with the game, Reynolds didn't play it as a kid. In fact, she didn't engage with sport much at all.
"I tended to stay home and watch cartoons and hang out with my mum. I wasn't the most athletic kid," she says. "But when I was 13 at Te Puke High School, my friends and I said: 'Okay how do we get out of class?'
"We signed up to rugby, and from my very first game – against a visiting Canadian school team – I loved it. I was at prop, but there'd be a scrum and I'd be out on the wing.
"I fell in love with everything about the game. I was a Year 9 kid who suddenly had a bunch of Year 13s looking after me around the school, and at parties on the weekend. It was something I wanted to be part of for the rest of my life – from that first game, I wanted to be a Black Fern. It just took a little while to get there."
A self-confessed "nutcase", she found her calling as a loose forward: "I didn't like being trapped in a scrum for too long."
Because Reynolds didn't have a broad background in the game, entering the women's grades came as a reality check. She realised her limited skillset was holding her back.
"I had strong ball carries, and I could tackle anything. But in terms of vision, decision, catch, pass, I wasn't the greatest to start with," she says. "And I didn't have a lot of the mental skills required to perform at the top level consistently."
So she and a few other players drove to Hamilton three times a week to play for the Waikato University club side, where she learned from the Black Ferns in her team – Honey Hireme, Teresa Te Tamaki, Crystal Kaua, Victoria Grant and Carla Hohepa.
"A lot of the senior players played my position, so I spent the next few years learning how to come off the bench and the role to play," Reynolds says.
Her first Black Ferns camp was in 2015, and she played "probably the worst game of rugby I've played", she admits. "I'm a competitor, but suddenly in a trial I couldn't handle the pressure, my confidence was rock bottom. I didn't express what I had to offer."
It was four years until she got another phone call from New Zealand Rugby. A frustrating time where she struggled with injuries and missed selections.
"There were lots of times when I wanted to stop playing," she says. "I thought I was ready, but the powers that be weren't picking me. I was lucky I had a lot of great people beside me."
Reynolds admits she doesn't fit the typical mould of a flanker. "If you look at me you think hooker," she says. "So I've always had pressure when I haven't made it to change position.
"I've tried to transition to hooker - but the pressure of throwing the ball in was actually too much for me, and it took away my love of the game."
She remembers the turning point - sitting in a car with Reuben Samuel, who worked for Waikato developing women's rugby before becoming an assistant Black Ferns coach in 2015. "I was really unhappy with rugby, and he asked 'Why do you play?' I just loved the sport. At that moment, I decided I'm going to play seven because that's where I love playing.
"Reuben pulled me back from the brink of leaving the sport."
Reynolds then went on a tour to Fiji with the Black Ferns Development XV in 2019, but still couldn't push her way into the Black Ferns squad.
She had one more shot playing hooker in a game for her Rangiuru club, but the scrum kept collapsing and she found herself sidelined for four months with bulging discs in her spine. "My body was telling me it's not for me," she laughs.
Returning home to turn out for the Bay of Plenty Volcanix, Reynolds became a crucial, consistent player, who's now played over 60 Farah Palmer Cup games.
She's forged a special relationship with Bay of Plenty Rugby, working there for the past five years – much of that time as women's development manager. She resigned earlier this year when she became a fully-contracted Black Fern.
"It's a no brainer that she's gone on to bigger and better things, because she's just that type of high performing person," says Bay of Plenty Rugby's general manager of community rugby, Pat Rae. Reynolds got 1000 more kids in the Bay to play Rippa rugby, before having the same effect on women and girls.
She says she'll continue to help the union as a volunteer. "Now I'll be able to have a more localised effect on my club and community. I have a group of girls I've worked with for the last 10 years; I want to see them flourish …I'm looking forward to being a big sis again."
Kendra Reynolds receives her Black Ferns jersey for RWC2021 with whānau, including her parents, Trish and Andy.
Since being selected for the World Cup, Reynolds has been inundated with messages from girls she's helped introduce to the game, and their parents. "The girls text: 'Oh Kendra, I can't wait till this is me'," she says proudly.
The Bay of Plenty union asked Reynolds if she'd wait until the Black Ferns contracts come up for renewal early next year before finishing up her role.
"But I decided to be brave and use this as an opportunity, because something great is going to happen, and I don't know what it's going to be. But I hope me putting myself out into the world, something good will come back."
She wants to continue working in sport, creating spaces for females to succeed.
"Anything that empowers women to chase leadership positions or fight the good fight, that's the space I want to be in. Whether that's community or high performance – or something I haven't even thought about yet," she says.
Reynolds has always wanted to help other women achieve more, even when it's left her on the sideline.
On last year's Northern Tour, she was happy to help make two of her best mates, Kennedy Simon and former Black Ferns captain Les Elder, be "the best sevens in the world".
"She's an incredible individual," says Simon, "She's definitely helped me become a better player. We work so well together, because we're polar opposites: I'm quiet and reserved, she's loud and out there, with so much energy."
Elder and Reynolds trained together in Tauranga, dubbed "the Harry Hard-outs", Reynolds says. But they realised they had become "too comfortable" with each other – Reynolds happy to move to No.6 for Elder.
"But the reality was, we are both specialist sevens," Reynolds says.
When the Super Rugby Aupiki teams were being chosen earlier this year, Reynolds sat down with Elder, the Chiefs captain, and together they decided it was better for Reynolds to move to Matatū so she could play at No.7.
It ended up being one of the best decisions of her career. Although Reynolds won a spot in the World Cup squad ahead of Elder, she knows her old team-mate is "bloody happy" for her.
"I'll be 30 in January and I feel it's come a little bit later for me than others, but I feel like everything is changing and all the crap I've been through has led to this. There have been relationships lost, there have been some tough times," she says. "But I've made it to the World Cup so whatever happens now it's about helping the Black Ferns win."