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Dublin: 4 °C Sunday 16 February, 2020
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'Rugby is something that I am so thankful for... but it's about more than just a game'

Sene Naoupu on opening up, being a role model, and her and her husband George’s undying love for Ireland.

Ireland and Leinster star Sene Naoupu.
Ireland and Leinster star Sene Naoupu.
Image: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

SENE NAOUPU’S GLOWING smile lights up the room on a chilly, but fresh, Monday morning in Dublin. 

Fresh herself from a successful training weekend across the water in Wales, the Ireland centre is in flying form. Happy to be promoting another positive campaign for women’s rugby as Guinness call on pubs across the country to screen Ireland’s upcoming Six Nations games. Not so happy about the bloodshot eye she sustained in action against their Celtic cousins the day before.

But things could be worse.

She radiates this air of gratitude throughout the interview, mentioning time and time again how thankful she is to be in the position she is in. 

With Ireland and with Leinster, New Zealand-born Samoan Naoupu is a star. Not just on the field, but off it too. She feels that there’s an onus on herself and her team-mates to put themselves out there to promote women’s rugby, and women’s sport. It’s important that they are positive role models for kids finding their way in life.

That’s certainly one of the reasons why she recently shared her story.

“We are all role models whether you are an older brother or sister or a parent,” she nods.

“But certainly, that comes with the responsibility of representing your country, whether that’s as part of the squad or the matchday squad. On and off the pitch you are a role model 24/7.

“A lot of us girls are honoured to even have that type of responsibility, and the girls are fantastic.”

In October 2018, Naoupu posted a picture collage on Instagram with a message alongside it detailing her struggle with an eating disorder and depression in her early twenties. A couple of months later, she delved deeper into her journey with RTÉ’s Evanne Ní Chuilinn in a touching video interview to mark Eating Disorder Awareness Week.

It was a tough thing to do, she concedes. 

But it was something she wanted to do.

Not for her. 

For others.

Absolutely it was, but the intention of that wasn’t about me,” she smiles. “The intention was to give hope to younger girls out there, and boys who might have been struggling and maybe haven’t told people. It was for those people to give them hope.

“You can actually overcome certain challenges and you can actually set those goals and go for it, no matter how long it takes. So, that piece certainly was intended to show that there was hope.”

And she’s definitely glad she did it.

“Look, if it helped one person then it has done its role. I’m a big advocate for ensuring that, in the right way, when you show your vulnerability, there’s a power in that and it encourages a community where it is okay if you are not okay, or it’s okay to share those sorts of experiences because a big part of the game and even now is ensuring that you look after your mental health.

Rugby as a sport is something that I am so thankful for and I’m so thankful that I got involved. And off the pitch, it is obviously important to look after that side of it.

“If anything, that helps with the performance and your enjoyment of the game and helps you be a better person a better teammate and a better family member. It’s about more than just a game.”

That it certainly is, but rugby has been a huge part of Naoupu’s life since she started playing in her native New Zealand in her early teens. And now, it is more so than ever.

Life on these shores has played a huge role in that.

After taking a break from the game around the time of her personal struggles, 35-year-old Naoupu made a return with Whitestown 45ers. Shortly after that, she met her now-husband, George, who went on to play 102 times for Connacht. 

george-naoupu-and-sene-naoupu Naoupu with her husband, George. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Their love for Ireland is clearly evident, and Naoupu is delighted to explain their deep connection with the Emerald Isle.

“When we first came here for six months in December 2009,” she begins, “we knew that we really weren’t going to stay. We’d already signed with a Japanese club at the time, for a couple of years actually.

“But when we came at the end of 2009, we fell in love with the place. We lived in Galway at the time, it was our very first Christmas here and we’d met some homegrown county Galway people at a match.

We ended up building a really great relationship, they are like our Irish family now and they invited us to their house for our first Christmas. I think that set the tone in terms of us feeling like we were in a very family-orientated country.

“At the same time, I grew up in a very small town, Dunedin, just north of Otago. We had a local Irish pub and because our family is musical, the band would play down there and we would go support them. It was almost like things had aligned and then it made sense to go to Ireland.”

“But then we fell in love with the place,” she beams. “We had gone to Japan that first year and thankfully Eric Elwood, who was coaching Connacht at the time, was able to get us back.

“That’s how we got back in 2011 for five-and-a-half years. George was playing there for six seasons and then Harlequins for a year in London, then we came back two years ago.”

Stylish centre Naoupu’s relationship with rugby was re-ignited at Galwegians after their return from the Kobelco Steelers, and from there, she linked up with Connacht. 

She’s forever grateful for her time at the western province and as she describes her “phenomenal” experience at Leinster as they drive the women’s game forward, she’s conscious to “always remember where you come from”.

It’s interesting to hear her views on the game in Ireland — for whom she made her 15s debut for in 2015 — and how much it has changed since her arrival. 

“It is completely different,” she nods. “There’s certainly work to be done, obviously constantly, but there’s been some progression in the development of the women’s game here which is fantastic.

“There’s obviously more numbers playing as well which is important in terms of the sustainability of the game. The pathway for girls overall within rugby as a sport is also positive at the moment.

“Campaigns like the Six Nations are really important for that reason as well, in terms of viability for younger girls to see the games — whether they’re able to make the games live [on TV]. The first game is obviously Scotland in Energia Park. Hopefully we get the girls there to see it, to help grow the game as well.”

sene-naoupu Naoupu at the launch for Guinness. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“It’s unbelievable, events like this that Guinness are rallying all the pubs around Ireland to show the women’s games live in their own pub across the island,” she adds.

“It’s unbelievable, and something that’s never been done before, something that’s very supportive of that movement in terms of increasing the visibility and support for women in sport in general, and for women’s rugby. I think that this particular movement is really important in terms of increasing that participation base and visibility of the game.”

She has certainly played — and is playing — her part in that.

And the growing profile of women’s rugby in Ireland is allowing her to spread a good message, along with making it easier for others to speak out.

Like she had done numerous times already throughout the interview, she thanks the journalist for raising the point. And the smile on her face says it all as she shares her opinion and the interview comes to a close.

I’m so passionate about girls and women’s sport,” Naoupu stresses. “I’m passionate about it and thankful for what it has given me and my husband.

“In terms of the importance of it in society and the importance of ensuring that girls and women are staying in sport if they enjoy it is hugely important. I’m also very passionate about equality in sport which is why I am so so thankful to be involved in a campaign like this today with Guinness.

“A lot of my work, even when I finished my Masters a couple of years ago in UCD was directly on that side of things and ensuring that it is part of a cultural shift towards normalising girls and women in sport. That work is important to me and it’s something that I’ve always been passionate about.

“I’ve been fortunate with the opportunities to help drive that movement to ensure that it is still pushed forward and that girls stay involved or interested in taking up sport, staying active and those sorts of things.”

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Emma Duffy

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