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The women behind Ireland’s drive for Six Nations glory

Three key figures in the Irish rugby team pushing for Six Nations glory talk rugby and life

The Ireland women’s rugby team has embarked on their mission to secure a third Six Nations title since 2013. Three of the key figures behind that charge for glory are captain Ciara Griffin, veteran Sene Naoupu and rising star Enya Breen. We met the trio at the team’s base close to the National Sports Campus to find out more about the women behind the green jerseys.

Ciara Griffin | back row and captain | 30 caps for Ireland | from Ballymacelligott, Co Kerry 

How do you find being captain influences your daily life?

I always want to lead by example in everything that I do: training, in my job, on the pitch. My motto is: “I wouldn’t expect my teammates do something I wouldn’t do.” I do everything 110 per cent and back myself.

How does being a primary teacher in CBS Tralee mix with being Ireland captain?

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I always wanted to be a teacher and always wanted to be a rugby player too. If you want something hard enough you’ll do anything to get that opportunity. In teaching, I try to make every child’s learning experience meaningful. The same on the pitch: I try to make every chance I have in a green jersey meaningful. In primary-school teaching you get kids at a young enough age to help them find and mould themselves.

How do you balance discipline with praise in the classroom and also on the pitch?

I try to focus on the positives, but don’t skim over the negatives. Feedback isn’t a personal attack – it’s constructive. I got great feedback from the players I grew up playing with and it was that feedback that moulded me as a player.

How do you balance rugby, teaching and helping your father on his beef farm in Ballymacelligott?

I love being busy. I’m a proactive person. I love having things on and pushing myself. You set your own boundaries and push yourself to see how you evolve. I help on the farm whenever I can: in the evenings after school, for example. I also have a personal-training business that I have to look after. But I clean out the yard, the sheds and the hay when I have time.

What’s an away-match schedule like?

We go to Dublin for training on Thursday and fly out for an away match on Friday. Then it’s the match on Saturday or Sunday, before flying back, and into the classroom on Monday.

Where do you like to travel to get away from rugby and work?

Back to the family farm in Ballymacelligott. I love it and get to switch off.

How do you unwind away from rugby?

I like to walk or run the Glanageenty loop with my fiancé Damien. He’s my rock in everything and supports me in all I do. I also love reading – the Complete Aisling series is great. And the Sam Warburton autobiography is brilliant.

What advice do you have for young people trying to succeed in life?

Be yourself.

Sene Naoupu | centre/outhalf  | 35 caps for Ireland  | from Oamaru, New Zealand

As a senior leader in the team, what advice do you have on mentorship?

If your experience can benefit the team, it’s a responsibility to share that knowledge to help make everyone better. I’m constantly learning from the best players, teammates, coaches and mentors both in Ireland and abroad, so it gives added confidence to any support I do give.

How do you balance your professional life and playing for Ireland?

It’s a challenge as I’ve various leadership roles from founding small companies like SportsGaff, aimed at promoting sport involvement, from leadership to participation to high performance. I also have ambassadorial roles with top national and global companies and I do professional speaking – promoting women in sport and business.

I’m also trustee and working-group chairperson for national charity Bodywhys, and work with The Rugby Athletes’ Commission and International Rugby Players Council. I also coach rugby roadshows for girls and boys across a number of schools and clubs.

It’s vital to be organised first and foremost, in terms of family and different roles. You need balance, which is something you constantly work for by getting enough sleep, eating the right foods and I do a little bit of sleep meditation.

Do you get nervous before big matches?

Yes, but mostly excited. The hard work has been done throughout the week, so at that stage it’s time to go out and perform. Once we’ve got individual and team clarity through collaborative work with our leadership group, informal leaders and peer group, we’re all on the same page, so I get more excited than nervous. I also do mental training with a sports psychologist.

Where do you like to travel to get away from rugby and work?

For George and I going back to New Zealand to see the family is important for us. Last year I visited over a dozen countries and cities. We have some places in Europe we really like: Mallorca; Santorini; Istanbul; and France to visit friends. I was in Cape Town last month, which was stunning.

What else do you do to unwind away from rugby?

If I’m not catching up with family and friends, I’m quite big into music. Playing and listening to it, and enjoying live music. George plays the guitar and piano and I play the piano, we play a lot of Pacific Island and remixed music acoustically. We jam casually. I’m also enjoying listening to Lilla Vargen at the moment.

What advice do you have for young people trying to succeed in life?

Be true to yourself and work hard for whatever goal you’ve set for yourself.

Enya Breen | second centre | four caps for Ireland | from Skibbereen, Co Cork

What’s it like rubbing shoulders with your heroes in the Ireland team?

It took a while to get used to, but they made me feel comfortable, and feel like I belong, and that I’m here because I deserve to be. So, it’s now a matter of pushing myself to be as good as them. Out on the pitch everyone is the same: trying to push the team and get better.

What advice would you give to other young people stepping up to senior roles in their lives or professions?

You need to believe in yourself and then work hard to follow it up, because nobody else can do the work for you. You can make yourself the best you can be, if you believe in yourself. I started playing rugby at eight and always wanted to play rugby for my country.

Who are your heroes?

When I was younger, Ronan O’Gara was my hero. And then, as I moved up, it was Niamh Briggs, my captain now, Ciara Griffin and Sene Naoupu.

How do you balance studying physiotherapy at UL with rugby?

Time management and organisation are key. My lecturers are very understanding and will always help with extra work or time off. It’s just up to me then to keep up with all my studies. I’m also a scholarship student, which covers my fees, which helps, as I don’t have time for a job.

What do your friends make of you being an international rugby player?

They’re helpful and supportive, but UL is so big, it’s nice to just fall into a crowd. But it’s great among my friends that they understand I can’t go out every week.

Where do you like to travel to get away from rugby and work?

A few years ago I went to Australia and Bali with my parents. In Bali we did a sunrise hike and in Australia we travelled up and down the west coast seeing the national parks. Perth was lovely and so were all the beaches.

What do you do to unwind from rugby?

I like to go home to Skibbereen to spend time with my family. I have three sisters and two brothers – I spend time with them. It’s not very often, but I like to spend time with them every few weeks. We might go out walking on the beach; walk the dogs – Nala and Minnie; meet friends for coffee and chill.

What advice do you have for young people trying to succeed in life?

Believe in yourself and follow your dreams. It happens when you work hard.

Let’s bring #HomeAdvantage to Energia Park. 
For more information on the Women’s Six Nations fixtures click here.