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'There are certainly other people in the world way worse off than myself'

Sene Naoupu is excited about Ireland Women’s next few months after overcoming a health scare.

EVERY ONE OF her team-mates was thrilled to be back in training with Ireland Women last Saturday for the first time since lockdown, but it was even sweeter for Sene Naoupu after a recent health scare.

The centre suffered a shoulder injury back in February during the Six Nations clash with England, when she was stretched off the pitch, and the subsequent scan delivered a real shock as it revealed that Naoupu had a tumour in her neck.

Her surgery was delayed until July due to the Covid-19 outbreak but she’s happy to report that all went well and her recovery is progressing to the point where she took almost a full part in the Ireland camp last weekend.

sene-naoupu Naoupu was back in Ireland camp last weekend. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“It’s one of those things, there are certainly other people in the world way worse off than myself and still waiting to be seen or have surgery,” says Naoupu. “I’m thankful that it’s done.

“I was fortunate to have some of the best vascular surgeons in Ireland do their thing. You’re literally putting your body in their hands, so I was really, really thankful that it was completed excised in St Vincent’s Hospital.

“I can now move forward and it was the best-case scenario in terms of how it ended up.”

The neck surgery has affected Naoupu’s vocal chords and breathing but, characteristically, she’s not letting that hold her back as she works hard to improve both.

Speaking on our call – organised as part of the launch of National Fitness Day 2020 – sounds like a demanding effort for Naoupu, whose voice remains hoarse, but she’s determined to push on.

“It’s just one of those things that I have to adapt to and another challenge to overcome, so we’ll see how that all goes. There’s still a lot of work I’ve got to do, in and out of hospital to see different experts, so I’m chipping away with that. 

“It was a different experience of training from a breathing point of view, but I’m getting there slowly.”

Even in a chat over Zoom, some of the reasons Naoupu is so important to this Ireland squad are underlined – her positivity is infectious and she’s a clear, concise communicator. As well as that, she remains a superb rugby player at the age of 36.

Post-surgery, Naoupu had a two-week walking programme – “quite an intense walking programme,” she adds with a laugh – before advancing to jogging and then on into last weekend’s non-contact training camp with Ireland.

It’s not certain when she will be ready to play a match but Naoupu will be a vital part of the plans for the remainder of 2020, with a huge challenge ahead for Ireland.

Their two postponed Six Nations games against France and Italy are due to be played at the end of October, before the final World Cup qualifying competition in December.

DW6I0332_1 Naoupu was speaking as part of the launch the fifth annual National Fitness Day.

Ireland need to win that tournament in December to reach the 2021 World Cup in New Zealand next year. Scotland, Italy, and most likely Spain will be standing in their way as Griggs’ side look to qualify.

Naoupu says Ireland returned from lockdown in “good nick” and several players set new personal bests in the dreaded Bronco fitness test, having trained hard under the remote guidance of S&C coach Orlaith Curran. Naoupu also praised the Ireland coaching staff of Griggs, Steve McGinnis, and Kieran Hallett, as well as manager Jen Moore, for their level of communication with players during those uncertain months.

“That contributed to all of us staying motivated, being aware, and understanding what was going on,” says Old Belvedere player Naoupu. “For us women, communication is a big thing! As long we know what’s going on, we can plan our lives.

“We train as full-time professionals but we manage other pretty hectic things in our lives, for example, employment or study, running a household, and managing to train in a capacity where we’ve been known to have GPS stats similar to the professional men’s workload in a week – we could carry that in a weekend. We were able to manage it quite well because we’re used to adapting.”

Ireland hope to pick up where they left off earlier this year, having produced encouraging performances in wins against Scotland and Wales before a defeat away to England.

With several young players making an impact in an impressively fluid style of attacking rugby, it felt like genuine progress after the disappointment of the 2019 Six Nations.

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“It certainly wasn’t perfect but there was absolutely plenty to be pleased about because we’d worked so hard over the last number of years to develop a skillset where we’re able to play that type of rugby,” says Naoupu, who adds that it was perhaps her favourite campaign with Ireland so far.

“Those habits and building new behaviours as individuals and as a team takes time. At the start of the year, with this particular campaign, it was our time.

“It was really rewarding to see how the younger girls stepped up. The more experienced players were pushed for their positions as well. It’s really competitive which, in all honesty, might not have been there for several years.”

Naoupu is enthusiastic about the quality that the women’s player pathway in Ireland is producing now, driving that competition and allowing Griggs’ side to play a style that truly suits them.

sene-naoupu-scores-a-try Naoupu scores for Ireland during the Six Nations earlier this year. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

She says Ireland have made progress with their game management and leadership, and also praises the professionalism of the coaching staff. 

Most of all, though, Naoupu feels the growth is down to the mental side of the game.

“Number one, first and foremost, it’s the self-belief. I personally believe, and maybe it’s because I wasn’t born in Ireland, that we absolutely have some of the best athletes in the world in Ireland.

“From GAA backgrounds, the athleticism, the ticker that exists in this country… it’s all about how we maximise that and express ourselves from a rugby point of view, how we use the history and DNA that’s already there.”

All of that said, Naoupu is keen to stress that the performances earlier this year “certainly weren’t perfect” and leave Ireland with plenty of room to improve, so the their two Six Nations games in October will be vital in putting some of the lessons into practice.

There was recent anger off the pitch in women’s rugby, however, with Canterbury’s launch of the new official Ireland Women jersey seeing the kit manufacturer use a model – rather than players – with the new jersey superimposed on for the promotion.

The widespread criticism eventually resulted in Canterbury issuing an apology and pledging to use female rugby players for all photoshoots in the future.

Naoupu says she was delighted by how the #IamEnough campaign sprung up in reaction to Canterbury launching the official IRFU kit in this manner.

“It’s been a strong opportunity, not just for rugby as a national governing body, but all sports to ensure that there are protocols in place now, equal opportunities for girls and women in sport to be visible,” says Naoupu. “That’s the key thing.

“I feel very proud to be part of a rugby community where our global voice made a full noise and was heard, and that actions points were put in place. I’m very thankful to our peers, some very good friends across a number of different countries and regions, who supported the message around it.

“That’s all it is really, the message around how fantastic my team-mates are as rugby players, as role models.

sene-naoupu-celebrates-with-her-teammates-after-the-game Naoupu and Ireland celebrate a try. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“I’m also proud to be part of some best practice that exists in Ireland already with the provincial unions, like Leinster for example, where we work with adidas and Bank of Ireland – strong commercial partners who have that alignment and include players.

“That’s been a contributor to how we were able to achieve some historic milestones over the last couple of years with Leinster – think of that historic game with Leinster over in Harlequins last year. That took the bravery of someone like adidas to back us and invest in the women’s game.

“It will take courage for brands to support us and it’s great to see now that there is courage there.”

As always seems to be the case, Naoupu sums things up well with a positive outlook and calm, level-headed approach.

And after a tough time in recent months, her focus is forward-looking as Ireland Women attempt to make sure they finish out 2020 in style with World Cup qualification. 

“The best performances from us are yet to come. Time will tell and, please God, the results will be seen in December.”

Ireland Active ambassador Sene Naoupu was speaking as she helped to launch the fifth annual National Fitness Day, which takes place on 24 September and will see people across the country getting involved in a host of free healthy and fun activities in leisure centres and gyms – with schools, workplaces and exercise professionals also getting in on the action too.

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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