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'From when we first arrived, the whole community in Galway was so welcoming'

Former Connacht man George Naoupu is now working as director of rugby in Gonzaga College.

GEORGE AND SENE Naoupu have had plenty of practice for the current reality of having to stay in touch with friends and family online only.

Spending “quality remote time” with their folks back in New Zealand has been part of daily life since first moving to Ireland in late 2009, when George signed for Connacht. 

The hard-working number eight initially joined the western province for a half-season stint before moving to Japan with the Kobe Steelers, but he soon returned and settled in for a five-season spell that saw him become a real fan favourite in Galway.

george-naoupu George Naoupu played for Connacht 117 times. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Naoupu played for Connacht 117 times in total and though the final season of his professional career involved a move to the UK to play for Harlequins, Ireland is definitely home on this side of the world.

Now director of rugby in Gonzaga College in Dublin, as well as head coach/player with Wicklow RFC, 36-year-old Naoupu admits that his body creaks and groans getting out of bed some mornings, meaning he’s glad to be looking back on his professional playing days rather than still in the thick of them.

“I miss being around the boys, that camaraderie, but I wouldn’t like to be hit by some of the guys playing now!”

Naoupu’s fondest memories in rugby revolve around those Connacht years.

“The people, from when we first arrived, the whole community in Galway was so welcoming,” he explains. “The biggest part of it was the friendships and relationships you had with players, coaches, all their partners, everyone who worked in Connacht.”

6ft 5ins Naoupu was at number eight when Toulouse came to the Galway for the first-ever Heineken Cup game at the Sportsground in 2011, and he was also there when Pat Lam’s men famously won away to the Top 14 side in 2013.

That 16-14 win at Stade Ernest Wallon was one of the biggest European shocks of all time, with Kieran Marmion’s try supplementing Dan Parks’ efforts off the tee.  

“That was just awesome, something I’ll cherish for a long time,” says Naoupu, who also points to the November 2015 victory over Munster at Thomond Park – Connacht’s first win there in 29 years – as a highlight.

Bundee Aki’s game-clinching try helped Lam’s side to an 18-12 win that Naoupu says “led on to how things shaped up for us that season.”

That season was, of course, the Pro12-winning campaign that concluded with a brilliant win over Leinster in the final.

george-naoupu-makes-his-way-with-the-team-up-college-road Naoupu during Connacht's Pro12 title celebrations. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Then in his last campaign with Connacht, Naoupu didn’t play in the championship run-in as the westerners proved unstoppable but he took as much delight as anyone on that magical day in Murrayfield.

“It was massive. You think of players players like John Muldoon, Michael Swift, all the boys who had been there through the tough times in the past. To be able to see the joy and the elation, that win was for everyone who had worn the green jersey.”

Naoupu’s season with Harlequins was the final one of his pro playing career but he’s far from finished with rugby, which always been central in his life.

A native of Christchurch in New Zealand, Naoupu comes from a sporting family – his sisters are top-class netball players – and was initially more involved in rugby league before finishing out his school days playing union with the renowned Christchurch Boys’ High School, where he “found something I was good at.”

He earned a spot in the Canterbury academy, which has “similarities to the Leinster academy” and went on to play provincial rugby with Canterbury, Tasman, and Hawke’s Bay before a season of Super Rugby with the Highlanders in 2009, when he met Sene through a mutual friend.

“One thing led to another and here we are 11 years later in Ireland,” says Naoupu with a laugh. 

An integral part of the Ireland Women team, as well as an Ireland 7s international, Sene has become a well-known, much-loved and influential figure in Irish rugby circles, as well as being an impressive role model.

She was also among those who welcomed the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to Ireland earlier this month.

“I’m so proud of her, all the stuff she has done, everything she has achieved,” says George of his wife. “She will cherish those things and, for me, to be able to see my wife doing the things she has done, to meet the royals for a Guinness, it’s something you’d never think of but she has made it all real.

“And she is, first and foremost, my best friend and wife and she has that motivation to keep grounded with her family.

“Everything she does, I’m just so proud of her.”

george-naoupu-with-his-wife-sene Sene and George Naoupu. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The feeling is mutual, particularly with George pushing forward post-playing in determined fashion. He first got involved in coaching with Galwegians Women during his Connacht days, enjoying the different perspective on rugby as they won two All-Ireland Cups in his three seasons in the set-up.

He learned from his professional coaches in Connacht too, including the “passionate and devoted” Eric Elwood, as well as how then-forwards coach Dan McFarland “always gets the best out of the players” thanks to his understanding of psychology.

Lam, understandably, made quite the impact.

“Pat’s eye for detail is right up there. He was able to bring the refreshing change of style, that expansive brand of rugby, but to still hold onto the true Connacht never-say-die, gritty, fighting-to-the-final-whistle way.”

Naoupu had been learning from good coaches since the beginning of his time in rugby union, working under Joe Schmidt when he played for the New Zealand Schools team in the early 2000s.

“He was the same as he is now really – very driven, very particular about certain things, but he knows how to get the best out of players,” says Naoupu of Schmidt.

“What I enjoyed was that every time he did things, there was always a smile on his face when he was doing it. Not knowing what the future held, then getting to meet him so many years later in Ireland, it just shows how small the rugby world is.”

Naoupu returned to Ireland from Quins in 2017 to become head coach/player with Wicklow and he helped the club into the Leinster Provincial Towns Cup final last season only to be pipped on a 10-9 scoreline by Enniscorthy.

This season was a tough one for Wicklow before the cancellation of all amateur rugby in Ireland, with two wins from 14 games leaving them bottom of the Leinster League Division 1A.

Naoupu’s day job as director of rugby in Gonzaga College is proving enjoyable and he is delighting in working to develop players and coaches alike.

The school has enjoyed success at Senior Cup level in recent years, going all the way to the 2019 final, where they were beaten by St Michael’s, and then delivering a huge shock by beating Blackrock this year.

george-naoupu-with-nick-doyle Naoupu carries for Wicklow in the Towns Cup final last season. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Naoupu has ambitions of pushing on to coach provincial and international age-grade teams in the future but he has been loving his role in Gonzaga, coaching the second year team and overseeing the entire rugby programme in the school.

“With the recent success the senior team has had under Declan Fassbender, we’ve found something that works for the players we have in terms of how we play,” says Naoupu of Gonzaga, who had never been to a Leinster Schools Senior Cup final before last year.

“The biggest thing we need to be aware of is that we can’t be trying to take on the brand of rugby that works for other schools with bigger numbers. They have their own way of doing things.

“In Gonzaga, it’s about providing a chance for players to participate in rugby and have an enjoyable programme. It caters for any level. Gonzaga is very academically-driven but there’s the balance of having rugby as an outlet.

“In years gone by, it has been the likes of Blackrock and Michael’s who have set that benchmark. Now, you have other schools aspiring to be as good as them or overtake them and that makes it such a strong competition.”

11 years on from that first friendly welcome in Galway, the Naoupus continue to invest their energy into Irish rugby.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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