She has one of the most impressive CV's in Kiwi sport and has done it all, and won it all. But what motivates a 39-year old super-sportswoman to keep going? Michael Burgess finds out what makes Honey Hireme-Smiler tick.
When Honey Hireme-Smiler goes to training these days, she's often called "Auntie".
It's not just about her seniority, though the 39-year-old has done everything possible in both rugby codes.
Hireme-Smiler also has plenty of relatives in her current team, delighted to be lining up beside a living legend.
"I went to my first training and had half the team calling me Auntie," Hireme-Smiler tells the Herald." 'I thought - `Oh no – what's this? But I've got cousins and a few nieces in the team. We are running drills and I hear, 'Auntie, Auntie, pass me the ball."
The unusual situation has also provoked admiration from the opposition on weekends.
"They said 'It's so cute when we heard them calling you Auntie'," laughs Hireme-Smiler.
"Yeah maybe, but it's not cute for me. But it's great to be playing with them."
Hireme-Smiler has gone back to her roots this season, turning out for Putaruru in the Waikato women's rugby competition.
It's her hometown, and more than three decades since she first played for the local league club (the Dragons).
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"I had always said to them, before I retire, I will come back and play," says Hireme-Smiler. "It's been a cool experience."
The first game was memorable, as Hireme-Smiler ended up playing for both teams, after the visitors Otorohanga arrived with only 12 players.
"We had half the town there and 24 players so it made sense," says Hireme-Smiler. "Better to make sure we had a proper game. I made a few breaks then I was standing waiting for support; there was no way I was going to score against my own team."
That episode neatly sums up her career; sustained ongoing excellence, a commitment to developing the game and not afraid to push the boundaries and realising that the sport – and the sheer joy that comes with it – is the most important thing.
On the league side, Hireme-Smiler has been busy playing and organising regional tournaments promoting the 13-a side code.
She is also co-ordinating the Waikato-based Kiwi Ferns wider training squad – "it's awesome, there are nine of us in there now – for their sessions.
After making a successful recovery from the first surgery of her career last December (she had played with torn tendons in her shoulder and bicep for 18 months) Hireme-Smiler is feeling fit and strong.
Her season climax was meant to be the NRLW, with a long-awaited debut for the Warriors' Women, after she played for the Dragons in 2018.
But the Warriors' participation is uncertain, given the ongoing Covid-19 complications.
It's not known how many prospective Warriors' players will be able to relocate for a 10-week period to Australia, especially as they are not full-time professionals.
"It's a pretty complicated situation," says Hireme-Smiler. "We need to wait for the latest information and then see what is possible. Of course, I would love to make my debut for the Warriors."
If that doesn't happen, her back up plan will be the Women's National League Premiership before (hopefully) a Kiwi Ferns test match in November.
It's all building towards the 2021 League World Cup, which would be an appropriate curtain call for Hireme-Smiler, who turns 40 next May.
"I've played in four [League] World Cups so to make a fifth would be amazing," says Hireme-Smiler. "And I've won two, lost two. It would be nice to end in the right way."
Hireme-Smiler first played for the Ferns in 2002.
Jacinda Ardern had just graduated from the University of Waikato, Stacey Jones was Warriors' captain and George W Bush was a second year President.
Her debut was against Samoa and Hireme-Smiler remembers an emotional haka, dropping the ball from the kick-off and scoring a hat-trick of tries from the wing.
Hireme-Smiler was part of the victorious 2003 and 2008 World Cup teams, then named player of the tournament in 2013, as the Kiwi Ferns lost in the final. She was a key player again in 2017, not long after returning from three years on the rugby circuit.
"I never want to be a player picked on name," says Hireme-Smiler. "It's all about being picked on performance. If I don't meet my own standard I'll be the first to pull myself out of contention; I need to earn it for myself first before I put it in the coaches' hand to select me."
Going on last season's form, that won't be an issue. Hireme-Smiler was imperious in the mid-year win over Samoa, before inspiring the Ferns to a memorable victory at the League Nines World Cup, beating hot favourites Australia.
That tournament was played a few weeks after her mother Caryn passed away from cancer (Hireme-Smiler had missed the 2019 NRLW season to care for her).
""I jumped on a plane to Sydney and was straight back into it," says Hireme-Smiler.
"Looking back, I didn't really have time to grieve but I really wanted to do it for Mum."
She thrived that weekend, with crucial plays and outstanding leadership. Her halftime speech in the final – picked up by television microphones – also had commentators raving.
"I guess that's the benefit of experience," says Hireme-Smiler. "I just wanted the girls to focus on their next job, keep it simple. There was no point planning the whole half in such a tight game."
New Zealand has had plenty of athletes with impressive longevity, but it's hard to think of anyone who has defied the ageing process so well, especially in such a physical, contact sport.
Eighteen years after she first represented her country, she is still the gold standard in backline play.
"I've got a lot smarter in how I train – I have to be," says Hireme-Smiler. "It's still intense, but the days of spending three or four hours in the gym are long gone. I never thought I would be playing at this age but my years of experience gives me a solid base."
The NRLW has helped unveil a new generation of centre stars – with the likes of Jillaroos Isabelle Kelly (23) and Jess Sergis (22) – but Hireme-Smiler is keeping pace.
"That's what drives me," says Hireme-Smiler. "That's what keeps me in the game, keeps me fresh. I've never been one to fear my opposition anyway but I really embrace those kind of challenges, knowing I am old enough to be their Mum but I will still foot it with you…still make you work hard."
Remarkably, Hireme-Smiler feels she peaked between 32 and 37 years old, the window when she was a dominating presence in league, rugby sevens, rugby and then league again.
"I had the opportunity to experience what being an elite athlete was like," says Hireme-Smiler. "There was more exposure to education about nutrition, the mental side of the game, recovery…that just wasn't there in my 20s."
She also gained a better understanding of her purpose – "what's the why" – and how she could help the team perform as a unit.
Hireme has also made an impact in the commentary box, as part of the Sky Sports team, covering Super Rugby, Farah Palmer Cup and NRL.
"It's provided a pathway into something else," says Hireme. "Sky has given me the opportunity to walk in both worlds (league and rugby). It's been a lot of fun."
Her full-time role at the Halberg Foundation also fulfils another passion.
"With these kids it's about focussing on what they can do, rather than what they can't," says Hireme. "I know what sport has done for me and how powerful it can be, so for these kids, who wake up with daily challenges, it's great to see the pleasure they get from sport and being active."
Hireme-Smiler, who married her partner of seven years Rochelle last September, is also an emerging director on the Waikato Rugby Union board and plans to become a coach.
But that's all in the future. For now, this icon of female sport will continue to inspire the next generation, whether or not they call her 'Auntie'.
"I want to do it in my own community, do it for my own people," says Hireme-Smiler. "I really want to empower young people to do what I have done. Use rugby or rugby league as a vehicle to thrive and grow."