Ariana Bayler jokes that Kendra Cocksedge’s boots were going to be too hard to fill anyway, considering they were kiddie size.
But figuratively, at least, the retiring Black Ferns legend’s footwear on the field was as big as it comes – she bows out of the sport with another World Cup win, having played the most women’s tests for New Zealand (68), and starting all but four of the Ferns’ past 45.
Now Bayler, the deputy halfback at the World Cup, who rode out all 160 nail-biting minutes of the semi-final and final as an unused sub on the bench, has the rather burdensome job of following in the footsteps of the great one.
But she’s up for the challenge – that is behind her move from the Chiefs Manawa to the Blues for next year’s Super Rugby Aupiki season – and the 25-year-old has been anointed by Cocksedge to the point of receiving quite the parting gift from the retiree.
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When departing their team hotel following the World Cup triumph, Bayler was handed over and entrusted with ‘Little Kenj’, the pocket-sized Black Ferns figurine which Cocksedge had drawn a No 9 on the back of and carried to every test match. That responsibility now lies with Bayler for the years ahead.
“She said, ‘I want to give you this’, because I believe you’ll be here for a long time,” Bayler revealed. “She said it’s a ‘Little Bayler’ now.
“That was really special, and it just really cemented how much she believes in me to carry on the legacy. So I’m very excited.”
If not also somewhat daunted.
“There’s a little bit of pressure now, I’m more nervous not to forget her than play the game, maybe,” she quipped of her new vital piece of game-day luggage.
Waihi-born and raised, Bayler broke into the Waikato team as a 16-year-old, but the road to international footy was far from smooth, sustaining not one, not two, but three ACL knee injuries before the age of 22.
However, with a strong determination to fight back each time, she duly went on to earn a Black Ferns call-up last year, running on to replace Cocksedge in each of the ill-fated tests on that northern tour.
After adding three more appearances (two starts) this year, she’s now embracing the opportunity to be the country’s No 1 No 9, and that has meant a proactive shift of franchises for next year’s second edition of Super Rugby Aupiki.
With the Ferns’ other World Cup halfback, Arihiana Marino-Tauhinu (12 tests, including captaining against Scotland at the World Cup), a teammate at the Chiefs Manawa, Bayler saw a chance to ensure some more game time up State Highway One.
“I was speaking to them [Chiefs] coach [Crystal Kaua] and she said we’d be sharing the role. And no player is there to share a role.
“I just thought, why not move to another place where we can not just be fighting for a position, where we can maybe grow each other in a better way by playing against each other.
“They [the Blues] were pretty keen on me, so I went around and checked out the facilities that they had, and it just looked like a really nice place to be, so I’m excited to make the move.”
Having Ferns co-captain Ruahei Demant, who was on Monday named World Rugby Player of the Yearto link with in the halves was also a big attraction, as was the proximity, with Bayler to still spend Mondays to Wednesdays in Hamilton then make the short drive for the players’ Thursday to Sunday in-season assembly days.
On the back of the World Cup success, and the up-tempo game implemented by Wayne Smith, a style she admits definitely opened her eyes to a new way of playing, Bayler expects the four teams to carry on in the same vein during Aupiki.
And now, with a special little figurine as a stark reminder of greatness, she is set on being the best she can possibly be.
“I want to continue growing my game in all areas, never stop learning, and just hopefully I can be creating a path for someone else coming through.”