In contrast to many of her teen prodigy team mates, Sarah Gregorius was a late bloomer on the international scene and didn’t debut for her country until the comparatively late age of 23.

But the freshly-retired Football Fern spent the next decade making up for lost time and now hangs her boots up having made 100 appearances and notching 34 goals, putting her level with Wendy Sharpe and behind only Amber Hearn on the list of all-time leading scorers.

Fittingly, her last kick in a Football Ferns shirt also found the back of the net, the 32-year-old tucking home a spot kick as New Zealand edged out Belgium on penalties in their opening match of the Algarve Cup earlier this week.

Gregorius describes her final Ferns act as ‘freeing’ and made sure to relish the moment.

“It was actually liberating,” she says. “I felt very calm and very fortunate to be there, and I was just trying to soak it all in.”

The striker has now joined an exclusive club of Football Ferns centurions that consists of only nine other players but getting to that milestone is something she never had in mind, particularly as an injury-hit, uncapped domestic-based player for Lynn-Avon United back in the early 2000s.

“Once I got one cap, I just wanted the next one, and then the next one after that. But, as I got to around the 90 to 95 mark, it then started to look a little bit more achievable,” she says.

Lower Hutt-born Gregorius would not have brought up her century had she stuck to an earlier decision to retire after the Rio Olympic Games in 2016. But she is glad she decided to reverse that call two years later and says her time spent away from the team made reaching 100 caps even more special.

“I’m very glad I had the opportunity to have a second coming as a Fern. It wasn’t a straight-forward decision and it hasn’t always been easy but, because I had that time away, every extra day or game I played felt like I was in bonus land,” she says.

“That extra pinch of perspective made it very special.”

The remarkable career of Gregorius has taken in three FIFA Women’s World Cups – including a memorable strike that put New Zealand in front against England in 2011 – and two Olympic Games but she struggles to pin down a favourite moment.

“I don’t think I have one actually. As a collective, we’ve had so many great moments on and off the field so no result or game sticks out,” she says.

There is one memory she will treasure forever though.

“The goal against Cameroon at the 2012 Olympics was special. For starters, it was a header – a miracle for a person who is only 156cm tall – and because it was part of the game that got us through the group stage and into the quarter-finals for the first time at an Olympic Games.”

Gregorius most recently played in New Zealand for Lower Hutt City and Capital but earlier carved out a successful career as an overseas professional, plying her net-busting trade in Germany, England and Japan.

Ironically, she puts her longevity at the highest level down to the frustrating nature of her formative years.

“I had two serious injuries when I was younger and just coming onto the Ferns scene,” she explains.

“While that delayed me making my debut for the national team for a long time, it taught me how important looking after my body is and how I couldn’t rely on talent or one particular attribute. Weirdly enough, I don’t think I would have had as long a career if I didn’t have such a bad and late start to it.”

“The key is the same cliché everyone always says about hard work and commitment but I also think you need to figure out ways to reinvent yourself as well, so you grow as the game grows while staying adaptable to what the team needs.”

Away from the field, Gregorius now holds a demanding role with FIFPro – the global professional players’ union – and left the Ferns camp immediately after the Belgium game to return to her duties in the Netherlands.

She is looking forward to watching her former team mates take part in the Tokyo Olympics later this year but will miss being part of an environment she has been at the centre of for so long.

“It’s very hard to point at one element – what makes the team so special is the sum of its parts,” she says.

“The players that form the nucleus of the group, the staff, and everyone that comes in wants to protect that culture and its legacy – when we get that right, it’s the best place to be.”

Story courtesy of NZ Football