Sene Naoupu on her retirement from rugby: ‘The benefit of rugby is the connections you make’

Ireland international is reluctant to dwell on her storied career, putting the focus firmly on Ireland squad’s upcoming tour to Japan

Sene Naoupu has 48 international caps, scoring six tries for Ireland in the Six Nations. In 2016, she earned two player of the year gongs, one from the rugby writers, another from Rugby Players Ireland. She’s a sevens international to boot, but, despite the accolades, the now former Ireland centre is reluctant to dwell for too long on her own career.

Instead, most of her focus is on Ireland’s significant tour to Japan, starting next Saturday with the first test in Shizuoka. There was a risk this interview wouldn’t even happen since Naoupu was worried that too much fanfare around her international retirement would overshadow a significant two-match series for Greg McWilliams’s side.

“It’s brilliant for this squad to get that experience against a team that will be at the World Cup,” says Naoupu. “The benefit of rugby is the connections you make and this is really important for the squad to spend that time together and install those connections off the pitch and on it, obviously.

“High performance is about belonging. When you feel like you belong you get the best performances out of each other.”

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Given the attention that is on this tour, is there any part of Naoupu that wishes she was out there, developing even more of those connections which she savours?

“That’s a great question,” she admits, the competitor in her perhaps wondering what may have been. “Any player would have loved the opportunity to represent on a historic tour. It’s such an exciting time for the squad in their development phase. I’m just really excited for the girls.

“I was going to hold and try to earn two more for the 50 [cap milestone] but I would have done it for the wrong reasons. That’s why I’m at peace to go now. I’d like to wish Greg and the squad all the very best for their epic tour to Japan.”

At peace to go now and pursue other challenges.

“I’m forever grateful for what rugby has given me and my family. But I’m more than a player, and I’ll continue to work in the global game from the other side as head of strategic projects and research with IRP [International Rugby Players], with doctorate research in rugby, other partnerships and in broadcasting.”

There are plenty of landmarks on the pitch on which to reflect. A Six Nations winner’s medal in 2015 is an obvious one, but another personal milestone quickly stands out.

“One of my favourite moments was when I had the chance to captain Ireland against England in Twickenham [in 2018]. Unfortunately it was because our captain [Ciara Griffin] was injured so I stepped in. It’s probably one of my favourite games to date.

“We didn’t win it but the way we came together and the opportunity I had to remind the girls before the game that world-class athleticism was in our DNA, we had what it takes to play against the best and one day, maybe not in my era, to be at the top. That game confirmed that.”

One thing that will undoubtedly help Ireland reach that pinnacle is the recent full-time contracts that were announced, meaning 15s as well as sevens athletes have fully professional deals.

Multiple reviews as well as the infamous letter sent by current and former players to the IRFU last year sped up that process of professionalisation. Even though Naoupu was a signatory, she again plays down her role in advancing the cause, choosing once more to focus on the collective.

“Part of me is at peace in retirement since we have left the game in a better place in that respect. It’s been a collective [effort]. I want to acknowledge the giants of Irish rugby whose shoulders we stood on and I got to play alongside some of those Irish rugby legends.

“Our legacy of professional programmes for the next generation to come is worth the years of hard work and pain of missing this year’s World Cup in New Zealand. I believe that we ended up with something better and something that is really important for the future of Irish women’s rugby in the long term. Touring Japan is the next step in that era.”

Naoupu is asked how she wants to be remembered. Given her selflessness in this discussion, it is little surprise to see that the impact on her teammates and how they see her off the pitch is what is most important to her.

“You would want to be a good person before the player. I would want to be remembered as someone who never gave up; it was never too late to achieve the dream. I moved over to Ireland as a rugby wife but I knew I wasn’t done [playing] but I wasn’t guaranteed to make it.

“I drove to Dublin from Galway three times a week every week just to go to training. To finally achieve my first cap in 15s in Florence and then the same year to achieve my sevens cap, I wouldn’t have got there if I didn’t have that drive.”

Nathan Johns

Nathan Johns is an Irish Times journalist