When Charmaine Smith went into the doctors for a scan in March, she was hoping to sort out a persistent niggle in her lower back.
Instead, the 27-test Black Fern from Whangārei is hanging up her boots for good after the same scan revealed a bulging disc in her neck which could render her paralysed from the neck down should she continue playing.
This cruel end to a rollercoaster ride from the outskirts of Whangārei to the pinnacle of rugby glory has left the 29-year-old relishing her many opportunities - and ruing the goals she will never accomplish.
"I'm not going to lie, it was really sad finding out," she says of her injury.
"I love rugby and it's given me so many opportunities, but I still had things I wanted to achieve.
"I still feel like I was yet to have my ultimate performance because I'm a perfectionist and I still feel like I didn't reach that and I wanted to come back and play for Northland, that's something that I'll always probably regret.
"But at the end of the day, I had a choice to walk away with my health and what else is more important?"
Smith, daughter to Bryan and Hayley, grew up about half an hour northwest of Whangārei at Purua before the family moved to its current residence - a 202ha dairy/beef farm a few minutes from the State Highway 1/Oakura turnoff in Whakapara.
With two older brothers immersed in rugby and hockey, Smith as a child tried her hand at both before switching to netball, soon to be joined by her younger sister.
It was through netball Smith took her first step towards sporting success. The tall defender honed her skills against her shooting sister in their Whakapara backyard, using a netball hoop installed outside what was formerly the farmstead's old cheese factory.
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After finishing at Whangārei Girls' High School in 2007, Smith had a two-year stint in Palmerston North at Manukura School, an education facility with a focus on high-performance sport where Smith continued her netball development.
The move paid off and Smith was soon playing in a Northland/North Harbour combined netball team - the closest she would come to playing for her home province - before moving to Auckland, where she spent a couple of years as a Northern Mystics training partner, accepting invitations to Silver Ferns training camps.
Despite her best efforts, Smith was never able to secure a permanent position in the Mystics squad so when the chance to play with some friends in a sevens rugby competition came around, she took it.
"I'd been in the same place for a couple of years and I thought I might try something new.
"We went and played and I loved it. There were no offsides, you could just take the ball and run!"
It was this point in 2015 when Smith's love of the oval ball, which began as a child, started to pull her away from netball and towards rugby.
After taking an instant liking to sevens, Smith was told by North Harbour rugby stalwart Bill Wigglesworth that she needed play 15s to develop her game knowledge for sevens.
Smith's progression in rugby suddenly went from zero to 100 as after just five games for East Coast Bay Rugby Club, she was invited to a trial for the Black Ferns.
"I remember trial game and [Bill Wigglesworth] was giving me a pep talk on the way out and I was like, 'I still don't really know what I'm doing'," she says.
"Anyway, the kickoff came and of course it came straight to me, so I grabbed it and ran, I thought I'd just give it a go."
Modestly, Smith says it was a case of good timing and good luck which saw her accelerate up the ranks, when in fact, her strong, 183cm frame made her great prospect for the Black Ferns' future locking combinations.
Given her relative inexperience in the game, Smith had to swat up fast - something she indirectly owes to All Blacks pivot Aaron Cruden, whose book "The Beginner's Guide to Rugby by Aaron Cruden" became her Bible.
However, that didn't fill all the knowledge gaps, as on the night before her debut against Canada in 2015, Smith's teammates were shocked to learn one of their locks didn't know what a maul was.
Nevertheless, Smith didn't look back. As a wide-eyed 25-year-old from rural Northland, Smith was suddenly travelling all over the world with the national team.
With very little experience overseas, Smith freely admits her fear of getting lost in foreign cities - something her more experienced teammates took advantage of while in Canada.
"We were in the city in Calgary and [the players] told me that bears would come and jump on the rubbish trucks and ride them down the streets and I was too scared to leave the hotel because I thought there were bears outside.
"So my nickname has been Yogi for that reason and because I thought Yogi was a breed of bear - I learned a lot about the world," she says with a laugh.
As evidenced by a shiny gold medal Smith keeps in Northland for safe-keeping, one clear highlight of her career was a Rugby World Cup win in Ireland in 2017. However, when asked of her favourite moments of her career, Smith struggles to look past her first game on home soil in front of friends and family against Australia at Eden Park.
"Running over to them at the end of the game and the looks on their faces - that was pretty awesome."
Fast forward to now, Smith remembers these memories fondly - albeit with a touch of sadness given her recent retirement.
After her initial scan in March, Smith was recommended to a specialist. However, New Zealand then entered the Covid-19 lockdown and Smith was left in limbo, unsure whether she would wear the fern on her chest again.
"I was watching games or whatever [during lockdown] and I'm like, 'I might not ever play again'."
In the end, her decision to end her rugby career became quite straightforward. When she finally saw the specialist about three weeks ago, it was confirmed the disc in her neck was pushing on her spinal cord.
Smith was warned she was at risk of a serious spinal injury if she continued playing, which could leave her with no movement below the neck.
"At the end of it, it had been sort of a grey area [during lockdown] and it was an answer and my decision was pretty easy."
Fortunately, the diagnosis has not been so serious as to end her eight-year career with the New Zealand Police. Now a sergeant, Smith is eyeing a move to the frontline early next month after a couple of years road policing.
On June 19, the New Zealand Police fraternity was sent into shock when Constable Matthew Hunt was shot and killed during a routine traffic stop in West Auckland.
Only one year older than Hunt and a regular participant in traffic stops, Smith was heartbroken to hear the news while she attended a weekend family catch-up in Russell.
"Honestly, the whole day I felt sick because it doesn't make a difference if you didn't know the person, [the police] are actually a big family," she says.
"It could have been any one of us and it's devastating."
Despite the risks, Smith says she has relished every second in the job which, she claims, made her better on the park and helps her living away from home.
"The police have been very supportive. Because I've got no family in Auckland, they are my family at work."
Just like many top-flight female rugby players, Smith balanced her endless training with the Black Ferns with gruelling shift work with the police - morbidly characterising her sleep schedule as a series of naps when she can fit them in.
For Smith, this level of commitment is simply a part of life she and her siblings learned from their parents.
"We could just look to our parents to learn what hard work was, they've worked for everything they've got," Smith says with a quick glance to her similarly modest parents.
"People ask me how I do it, shift work and rugby, and I say, 'My parents don't even get a day off, they work every Christmas, there are still cows to be milked'."
With such a busy schedule, trips home were few and far between but Smith says she takes every chance she can to head north and reacquaint herself with the dogs, horses, cows and chooks.
"I feel like it just grounds you," she says of rural Northland life.
"You can get caught up in Auckland and all the hype of the big city and everything moves so fast and you come up here and it takes a couple of days to realise that everything doesn't have to be at 100 miles an hour."
Smith's affinity for Northland adds a further layer of sadness to her retirement. With Northland featuring in the domestic women's rugby competition for the first time last year, the region's female players finally have the chance Smith never had to start a rugby career without leaving home.
"Even with netball, we had the 'North' team but we never had a Northland team so playing for a Northland team would have been the icing on the cake to finish rugby off on a high."
Northland's place in the fabric of New Zealand women's rugby was further strengthened when it was confirmed Whangārei will host games in next year's Women's Rugby World Cup.
Smith encourages all young girls who are interested in rugby to follow their passion, no matter the opinion of doubters.
"When I transitioned from netball to rugby, I had a few people saying, 'what is she doing' and I went and saw a sport mental skills coach to talk over my decision and he said, 'Char, those people who are doubting you, I guarantee you when you put a black jersey on, you won't hear from them', and that was true."
Even though she now leaves the game she loves, Smith knows she will always be welcomed by her Black Ferns family.
"It was hard having to deal with the reality of not having the feeling of putting on the jersey [again].
"But I know that even though I'm not playing, the culture we have in the team, I'm still part of them."