Sene Naoupu turning mind back to rugby after health scare
Since losing to England in February much has changed for the Kiwi-born Irish player
Sene Naoupu has her mind focused on reaching the World Cup with Ireland. Photo: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho
For the Irish women’s team their last game before the world changed was as hard as it gets. Restricting England, the reigning Grand Slam champions who had won 17 of their previous 18 Tests, to one second-half try after trailing 22-0 at half-time in Doncaster last February was something of an achievement in itself, albeit it didn’t feel like that at the time and certainly didn’t for Sene Naoupu.
As the Irish players continually put their bodies on the line even when the result was known, their centre suffered “a stinger” and was replaced six minutes from the end of their 27-0 defeat.
“It was a double knock so our physio Andy McDonagh and medics decided it was safer just to do a precautionary scan,” recalls Naoupu, who underwent the MRI scan back in Santry, whereupon they found she had a tumour in her neck.
“Yeah, I did get a fright,” she admits with a laugh. “Our team medic, Dr Matt Cosgrove, gave me a call and asked me if I was somewhere I could sit down and if I had family around me.
“Yeah, it was an interesting time, and an educational time too. As you do, I started to research things and ask questions of the medical experts. They’re phenomenal people. My first consultation with Dr Joseph Dowdall was an eye-opener in itself, in understanding what was involved and the neck area in general. It was completely excised in St Vincent’s Hospital, and I’d really like to take this opportunity to thank everyone in St Vincent’s Hospital.”
Looking back too, Naoupu also describes the circumstances which led to the discovery as “a blessing in disguise”.
“Fair play to our medics, the experts in Santry and Dr John Ryan, ” she says. “The operation was meant to happen pretty soon afterwards but then obviously with Covid it got a bit delayed, and I was just thankful to have it done four weeks ago.”
She’s working with a speech coach, which made her willingness to do this croaky interview all the more remarkable.
The last few months in her life sounds like quite an ordeal but Naoupu maintains: “To be honest, it was grand. As you know, Covid was an ordeal for everyone. It was what it was and I got through it. Some people weren’t as fortunate to get surgery in these times as well.”
Naoupu and her husband George couldn’t get back to New Zealand to see family, but still she says: “I’m genuinely thankful that we had a roof over our heads, food and space to train, and the internet to connect with family and friends. Others aren’t as fortunate for pure basics. It was fine and I managed to get a lot of work done and a bit of training.”
A first generation New Zealand-born Samoan, growing up in Oamaru, although unable to return home to see her family, seeing how New Zealand dealt with the pandemic was a source of pride.
“It made me relieved and thankful to see New Zealand go incredibly well through Covid, but equally it made me proud to see how Ireland and our own government here coped. To be honest, it’s pretty humbling to be living in Ireland now during these uniting times.
“New Zealand is unique and has an advantage in how they can manage themselves, and I thought it was good to see how bi-cultural the approach was from the Government and the success to where they’ve got to now, that made me proud.”
Despite the lockdown and her impending operation, helped by the team’s strength and conditioning coach Orlaith Curran, Naoupu says that if anything she was even more motivated to stay fit knowing that after the operation she was going to be less mobile for a few weeks.
“Orlaith has been absolutely phenomenal keeping us girls motivated with the individualised programmes we were given. She’s been a bit of an MVP during these times.”
Having the rescheduled Six Nations games against Italy and France on the last two weekends in October is “super positive news” for herself and the squad. “Whether I’ll be in there or not I’ll certainly be doing all the work I can to try and get there.
“Being in an environment where we’re bringing out the best in each other can only be a positive thing. The recent Six Nations campaign was certainly one of my favourites,” says Naoupu of a tournament which began with home wins over Scotland 53-0 and Wales before that defeat by England, who had previously beaten Scotland and subsequently beat Wales 66-7.
“We’ve worked so hard in the last number of years and we’ve developed a culture that genuinely challenges us to achieve the standards we set as a playing group. Ciara Griffin, our captain, has done an amazing job inspiring our leaders, peer group and the girls coming through, and Adam Griggs and the coaching team have taken my own game to another level.”
Naoupu is also enthused by the improved pathways in Ireland and an increase in playing numbers over recent weeks at her club Old Belvedere, where she watched training on Tuesday night, and across the country.
By nature energetic and keen to inspire the next generation in Ireland and abroad, Naoupu describes her life as “fairly full-on off the pitch”. She has consultancy and brand ambassadorships through Line Up Sports, with companies who share her belief in equal opportunity for girls and women in sport. Her SportsGaff company partners with national governing bodies to facilitate supplementary player pathway support. She is a board director for the national charity BodyWhys for those with eating disorders, something she suffered from herself in her 20s.
“We offer support services, treatment options and education resources for those affected by eating disorders and their families.”
“Hopefully I do my little bit,” she says modestly, but there’s little doubt that she does.
Naoupu is also an International Rugby Players representative on the Women’s Advisory Council for World Rugby and is equally optimistic about the women’s game generally, declaring that “the golden years” are imminent.
Her story, like her husband’s, is very Kiwi – have boots will travel. Their “eye-opening and fascinating” journey has taken them to Connacht, Japan, Connacht again, London and, since 2017, Old Belvedere and Leinster.
“I’m living the dream. Everything is about relationships and I’ve strong mentors around me that I’m incredibly grateful for,” she says, listing a litany of people in Irish sport and globally. “There’s so many.”
So it is that of all the questions which causes her to pause at length, it’s when Naoupu is asked what playing for Ireland means to her.
“For me, it’s deeper than the sport itself. Representing Ireland is a responsibility obviously. In some of what I would like to say, it’s not my place to say, because of the historical aspects that come with that.
“I was born in New Zealand – a very, very young country – and then moved and spent what is now almost a decade on the other side of the world in a country which is probably one of the oldest and most historic, where there’s another level of awareness and understanding to respect.”
“So, to be able to play a sport like rugby for Ireland, from a performance point of view, is a responsibility that I take very seriously. I think it’s about not only performing for Ireland on the pitch but off the pitch. Because of the way I was brought up, the experiences I’ve had and I’m still learning about life in general and my teammates, it’s about being the best version of myself in that moment for Ireland. I can’t even articulate it. This is terrible,” she says, having articulated it so well.
Although 36, Naoupu remains one of the Irish team’s go-to players, with her carrying, passing and defensive leadership. They show all the hallmarks of a player who took up the game in her formative years and having taken a significant break from the game in her 20s, she has plenty left to achieve.
Not the least of her targets is helping Ireland to qualify for the 2021 World Cup, which is scheduled to take place in New Zealand in September and October of next year, through the European qualifying tournament which had been planned for this December. This will not include England, France and Wales, who have already qualified, and there is also a secondary route through the repechage. To that end she believes the timing of these upcoming games against Italy and France should be beneficial.
“My bigger picture goal, since 2017, was to be committed to the programme so we can qualify for the World Cup, and that World Cup is in New Zealand. Whether I’m good enough to go with that squad or not, I’m motivated to make sure the best squad for Ireland can qualify and then compete on the world stage.
“That was my bigger picture goal, to do whatever that took and however hard it was, and the decisions we had to make as a family.”
Becoming a little emotional, Naoupu concludes: “That’s what it means to play for Ireland.”