rising to the challenge

Team culture essential to Ireland star Naopu as second-best team in the world come to town

Adam Griggs’ team begin their Six Nations campaign against England this evening.

LEINSTER STAR SENE Naoupu captained Ireland for the first time in her career in the November series, but it’s an honour she shares with her team-mates.

Sene Naoupu dejected Ryan Byrne / INPHO Sene Naoupu talks to her players after facing England in November. Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Even when she concedes that it was a privilege for her on a personal level, she reiterates that this Ireland team is a player-led outfit. 

She feels as though she was just keeping the seat warm for regular captain Ciara Griffin, who was unavailable for that game against England.

“It wasn’t just myself in that captaincy, I had some fantastic girls around me,” Naoupu says in her typically modest way, always deflecting the praise away from herself.

Head coach Adam Griggs has certainly identified leadership qualities in Naoupu. The Ireland squad that will commence their Six Nations campaign this evening contains three uncapped players, and Griggs has previously said that Naoupu was instrumental in welcoming those new faces to the group.

Unsurprisingly, Naoupu is visibly humbled to hear of his praise, but she’s happy to take on this role in the team.

“Team culture is something that I’m a hugely aware of. In terms of my leadership style, a lot of is making sure we’re getting the best out of players, out of ourselves.

Because I’ve been there in terms of being a younger player in other parts of the world and in Ireland. Going through the last number of years, I suppose that level of empathy to ensure that those young girls aren’t intimidated when they come into that environment.

“That they really appreciate a high performing environment. They settle in and feel part of the family, because for me team culture is everything for us and I feel the last couple of years we’ve been able to really grow in that particular area of our squad.

“I’m starting to notice the difference on the pitch now. This week is another super test for us. Certainly it’s something that I would pay a big focus on, ensuring that no matter who is in the squad, that everyone is part of it.”

That November International ended in defeat for Ireland as did their other outing that month against USA. They continued their Six Nations preparation in January with a five-try win over Wales in a warm-up fixture.

“That was a super learning for the girls that were on the pitch at the time,”says Naoupu as she reflects on that composed performance against the Welsh.

Sene Naoupu Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Naoupu at the Ireland team announcement for their opening Six Nations game earlier this week. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

“We need that under pressure, to be able to have that game sense to control certain parts of the game. That was an important learning for some of the younger girls.”

The stakes will be much higher this evening as the number two ranked side in the world descend on Energia Park in Donnybrook [KO 5pm, Sky Sports Max].

As Naoupu correctly points out, the pressure is on the visiting side who have all but seven Six Nations players on professional contracts.

But in the same breath, the Ireland centre insists that they are looking towards themselves and controlling their own controllables.

“We’re focused on what we’re capable of. We’re focused on doing our best at every training session and then getting better every time.

Building on, again, every training session, every game. With the game this weekend, we’re all about ourselves in terms of ensuring that we put in the best performance that we can individually and then as a team.

“That’s a contribution from the whole squad. Some of the girls that didn’t make the 23 were certainly part of our process in terms of ensuring that we get a good performance in the week.”

While becoming a professional team is a huge step forward for the World Cup finalists, it will take time for those players to adjust to their new status as full-time athletes. That could play into Ireland’s favour this evening.

England v New Zealand - 2017 Women's World Cup Final - Kingspan Stadium PA Archive / PA Images England captain Sarah Hunter in the 2017 World Cup final against New Zealand. PA Archive / PA Images / PA Images

Head coach Simon Middleton is quoted by The Guardian as saying that it will take “two years to truly feel the benefits of turning professional.”

And as that transition process begins, it could present Ireland with a window of opportunity in Donnybrook.

“It’s never an easy game against England,” says Naoupu of the difficult task that lies ahead.

“We’re really excited for the challenge, training’s been going really well. The mood in the camp has been fantastic, really positive.

“It’s a really hardworking team culture in there and we’re really excited to get together tomorrow and hopefully put in a big performance this Friday.”

Ireland women:

15. Lauren Delany (Firwood Waterloo/ IQ Rugby)
14. Eimear Considine (UL Bohemians/ Munster)
13. Sene Naoupu (Old Belvedere/ Leinster)
12. Michelle Claffey (Blackrock/ Leinster)
11. Megan Williams (Old Belvedere/Leinster)
10. Nicole Fowley (Galwegians/Connacht)
9. Alisa Hughes (Railway Union/Leinster)

1. Laura Feely (Galwegians/Connacht)
2. Leah Lyons (Harlequins)
3. Fiona Reidy (UL Bohemians/Munster)
4. Aoife McDermott (Railway Union/Leinster)
5. Nichola Fryday (Galwegians/ Connacht)
6. Juliet Short (Railway Union/Leinster)
7. Claire Molloy (Wasps)
8. Ciara Griffin (UL Bohemians/Munster)(captain).


16. Emma Hooban (St Mary’s College/Leinster)
17. Linda Djougang (Old Belvedere/Leinster)*
18. Anne Marie O’Hora (Galwegians/Connacht)*
19. Anna Caplice (Richmond)
20. Claire McLaughlin (Old Belvedere/Ulster)
21. Kathryn Dane (Old Belvedere/Ulster)*
22. Ellen Murphy (Olde Belvedere/Leinster)
23. Alison Miller (Old Belvedere/Connacht).

England women:

15. Sarah McKenna (Saracens Women)
14. Jess Breach (Harlequins Ladies)
13. Emily Scarratt (Loughborough Lightning)
12. Tatyana Heard (Gloucester-Hartpury)
11. Kelly Smith (Gloucester-Hartpury)
10. Katy Daley-Mclean (Loughborough Lightning)
9. Leanne Riley (Harlequins Ladies)

1. Hannah Botterman (Saracens Women)
2. Lark Davies (Worcester Valkyries)
3. Sarah Bern (Bristol Bears Women)
4. Catherine O’Donnell (Loughborough Lightning)
5. Poppy Cleall (Saracens Women)
6. Sarah Beckett (Firwood Waterloo)
7. Marlie Packer (Saracens Women)
8. Sarah Hunter (Loughborough Lightning).


16. Amy Cokayne (Wasps FC Ladies)
17. Bryony Cleall (Saracens Women)
18. Shaunagh Brown (Harlequins Ladies)
19. Rosie Galligan (Saracens Women)
20. Rowena Burnfield (Richmond Ladies)
21. Natasha Hunt (Gloucester-Hartpury)
22. Zoe Harrison (Saracens Women)
23. Emily Scott (Harlequins Ladies).

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