When All Black star Ben Smith first saw Katie Menzies at Dunedin’s saltwater pool, love was the last thing on his mind. As a 15-year-old lad, his first impression was typically impish.
“I thought, wow, she’s a bit of a babe. She was in a bikini,” he says with a cheeky smile, as his now-fiancée rolls her eyes.
“Then we started texting. I had one of those old-style phones, the big chunky ones, do you remember?” he asks Katie, a former New Zealand triathlete and Otago basketballer.
“Yeah, mate,” she replies, using their long-held nickname for one another. “And it all just kind of happened from there!”
Now, after almost 13 years together, the proud Otago couple will finally tie the knot – much to the delight of their family and friends, who Ben (28) admits, were waiting a long time.
“I was getting a bit of stick,” he confides. “But I was always going to do it, just in my own time, not someone else’s. We were in no rush!”
Posing good-naturedly for the Weekly on a zero-degree day, Ben and Katie laugh their way through their photoshoot, even as snow begins to fall and the pair start to shiver.
“Nah, it’s all good,” Katie says, rebuffing the offer of her coat. “We’re tough, we’re from the South!”
The couple have been engaged since 2011, when Ben popped the question to Katie (27) while balancing precariously on one knee in a banana boat after a snorkelling trip to Phi Phi Island in Thailand.
But a year after their perfect engagement, they decided to take a “sabbatical” from their relationship, to ensure that they were making the right decision.
“At that point, we’d been together for 10 years from such a young age,” Katie explains. “And I had no interest in getting married, then realising in another 10 years that we weren’t our own people any more. We both needed to make sure that this is what we wanted.
“But after two months apart, we were miserable, so we got back together.”
They haven’t looked back since. Their relationship is one built on not only love, but an adoration and respect for each other’s achievements.
They’re both quick to mock one another at any opportunity – a big bone of contention is who’s the funniest – and, of course, they both think it’s them.
Being sportspeople, there’s also a natural and, at times, fierce competitiveness between them that pushes the other to both be better.
“We are very competitive, to a point,” says Katie. “I know he’s better at some things.”
“Wait, what? Yes!” Ben says, surprised. “You admitted it!”
“But ask him who can run up Mt Iron the fastest,” Katie quickly adds. “We’ve done it four times this year, and I’ve beaten him every single time.”
The pair’s shared love of sport made them close, and as kids growing up in Dunedin, they spent almost every waking hour outside, swimming, walking and playing touch and basketball.
But it’s Katie’s sense of humour, thoughtfulness and intelligence that the All Black fullback and winger admires.
“She’s pretty amazing,” he says. “She’ll always be the one to volunteer for things that other people might not want to do – if there’s a speech that needs to be done at a 21st or something like that, and no- one’s keen to do it, she’ll put her hand up.”
“I love the same things about him, really,” Katie agrees. “I can’t think of a manly way to say this, but he’s quite gentle...”
“That’s not manly!” Ben agrees.
“Well, he’s kind and generous. And caring,” she explains. “He looks after me, and he does things that let me know he cares and that he loves me. He’s got my back – and he’s kind of funny. Not as funny as me, but funny enough!”
Though it’s been a few years since their Thailand proposal, calling each other “fiancé” is still a weird feeling – the pair much prefer “mate” – but Katie absolutely adores her vintage-inspired, brilliant-cut diamond ring, which she and Ben designed together.
“I didn’t propose with it, though, I bought a little cheap thing,” Ben says. “I knew Katie would want to do it herself.”
“But he could have done it all, the design we have was what he had in mind anyway,” she smiles.
Now, with only months to go until the big day, life couldn’t be more hectic for the laid-back couple. Along with planning the wedding, they are renovating their Dunedin home while juggling Ben’s Highlanders and All Black commitments, as well as Katie’s triathlon training and teaching degree.
But though there’s a lot going on, their number one priority is still time with each other and their beloved Labrador Charlie.
“He’s great for us. It gives us an excuse to walk down to the beach together,” Ben says.
“And we have date nights and go out for dinner, but sometimes we’re sad and we’ll head home to watch a movie instead of going out.”
“We like a chilled-out life,” adds Katie. “Quiet and chilled with good friends and our family. We’re not really after the limelight or anything like that.”
It’s not surprising then that not much has changed for the pair since their first date 13 years ago.
“I’m so proud of Ben,” admits Katie. “Of course because he’s done so well with rugby, but more because he’s the same person he was way back then, when he was mucking around with a ball on the field and before it paid the bills. That’s what I really love.”
With the help of a local wedding planner, Katie has taken charge of the details of their simple, elegant summer wedding – and with more than 150 on the guest list, it’s proving to be no mean feat.
“It’s a lot of fun, though,” she says. “We’re getting there. We don’t want it to be too fancy, just good music and good food!”
The couple can’t wait to formalise their union – or as Ben calls it “putting a ring on it”.
“It’s just confirming the commitment that we want to spend the rest of our lives together,” he says. “And it’s more of a celebration than anything, with all the people we care about.”
“Yeah, we’re big family people, and we do want to have our own family,” adds Katie. “It’s the next natural thing to do and now it’s the right time. So that’s what we’re going to do.”
“Yup,” Ben says, putting his arm around Katie as he quotes Who Wants to be a Millionaire?
“Lock it in, Eddie!”