Sene Naoupu getting over gainline on and off the pitch
Kiwi has seized her second chance since coming to Ireland with husband George
Sene Naoupu in action for Ireland in the Women’s Six Nations Championship. Photograph: Colm O’Neill/Inpho
Connacht rugby player George Naoupu and his wife Sene, who is hoping to represent Ireland at the Sevens World Cup next year. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy.
Sunday lunchtimes in Donnybrook. Ireland versus Italy and Scotland. Much work needed on the skills front. Plenty of sevens players learning to play rugby, what with so many rugby players away playing sevens.
Amid it all is Sene Naoupu. Carrying into heavy traffic, her peripheral vision coming to terms with the lack of options, so literally hitting the ground running, recycling possession and instantly bouncing back to her feet. Where possible, freeing her hands for an offload or flinging a right-to-left laser pass that no one else on view is capable of replicating.
A natural-born rugby woman from north Otago.
On the pitch, in a game, is the only time you can’t see the whites of her teeth. “People just gravitate towards Sene,” says George Naoupu, her husband, the Connacht backrow and junior business partner in Senshaper (which we shall come to). “Maybe because she smiles all the time. I don’t know how she does it.”
A rugby player since infancy, Sene she is currently plunged among women who came to rugby having excelled in other sporting pursuits.
“That’s why I think it’s so amazing. The girls are so talented. I was born with a touch ball in my hand but the Gaelic football and camogie girls are showing glimpses in games. Obviously it will take time to develop but I can see it already,” she says.
Less trained eyes cannot but the Ireland women’s squad and overlapping Sevens programme need time to grow – a World Cup on Irish soil (UCD and Belfast) next year could be preceded by an unlikely trip to the Rio Olympics.
Naoupu could, should be a central figure in both.
Raised in the town of Oamaru on New Zealand’s south island, she played touch in the back yard with her brother Ali and cousins Wayne, Ralph and Luna.
“Oh gosh, I was a tom boy from such a young age,” she laughs. “I was the youngest of four but I’d be with the boys quite a lot. I started playing sport from a very young age, five or six. They would be out in the backyard playing cricket or touch rugby or softball. Any sport. We even made up a 20-metre sprint track.”
This dovetailed with health and fitness becoming her profession. Sport was always the bedrock she crashed against and grew around.
You and George are Samoan?
“New Zealand-born Samoans. But first-generation. Our parents were born there and moved to New Zealand so we are the first crop. We speak it at home.”
In rugby Sene soared right up to the Black Ferns – the New Zealand women’s team – as a 21-year-old. “Yeah, I was a 10, 8kg lighter than I am now.”
The final trial to represent her country proved her temporary undoing. She missed the cut and life unravelled for a time after that.
“It was a really tough time to break into that team. Hannah Myers was there and Anna Richards was at number 10. But I got the trial. It was something that I, you know, feel I should have done better.”
“No regrets because it has led to where I am now. So absolutely no regrets when I am looking back on it because that was actually a turning point in my life outside of rugby. In terms of experiences, those were invaluable for me becoming the player I am now.
“And I am still learning,” she emphasises. “I feel that it has given me a little bit of an edge and it’s a feeling that I never want to feel again, which is why I always try to make sure I do perform when I get the chance.”
You didn’t play rugby between 22 and 28, right? “No, the gap wasn’t that big. Definitely didn’t play for a few years.”
“I felt I had trained for years and years and it all came down to the trial. There were other pressures from university and work, I just decided to give it a break. My heart wasn’t in it for a wee while. Just wanted a break from the sport.”
That can happen with something you love?
“Oh, I do love rugby. It is such a passion of George’s and mine. It wasn’t that I fully lost heart, I was just going through a few things in my life.”
We come clean on having done our research before the interview. The issue of anorexia is not presented as the central theme of her story but Naoupu is asked if she wants to include it in an article about her life as a rugby player journeying from Oamaru to Galway.
“It was an interesting time. I had been sporty from such a young age – played all sorts of sports, trained for years and years and been in a couple of different high performance academies for basketball and rugby. I suppose I just sort of questioned myself as to why I was doing this if I wasn’t going to make the next level.
“I developed an eating disorder. The doctor at university diagnosed it as anorexia.
“It is very uncommon for Samoans to have anorexia because we are very big boned people and we love food.” Her smile instantly lightens the mood. “I love food now! But at the time it was a control thing.
“Everything was out of my control at that time. I was given assistance from nutritionists and psychologists, all that sort of support, so, yeah, it was a very interesting time in my life.
“It is absolutely part of my story because it went on for a couple of years. I was 20kg lighter than I am now, more than that actually. In that period I wasn’t physically able to play rugby. I almost went from being sporty and active and healthy to the opposite. Then I was depressed within that time, obviously.
“I went back home.”
There follows a stuttering, meandering question about the healing powers of time, family and the awareness of anorexia nowadays.
“That’s a great question,” she kindly responds. “They say anorexia is a disease that takes at least 10 years to fully recover from and heal yourself.
“After I graduated I moved home to my mum – Toeafiafi Taiti – who is a single mum of four. That’s where I get my independence from, my tenacity of character. She raised us all by herself.”
She turns the tables to ask about her interviewer’s family. Have you sisters? “Yeah, two . . .” We somehow wrestle back control. It’s a rarity for sports people to show such genuine interest.
Like any story about recovery she needed to come out of the dark period before truly appreciating the value of her gifts. And Naoupu’s gifts are many – a never-ending smile, energy, charisma and her natural ability to play rugby for Ireland, as it turns out, and not the Black Ferns.
We sat with her in Dublin ahead of the Italy game and just after a physio session as she glided through the latest 16-hour day juggling commitments to Tom Tierney’s Ireland squad, the Sevens programme (and Rio dreams) and Senshaper, her health and life coaching business, in which she is the major shareholder – all of which conspires to take her from Dublin to Galway and back again several times a week.
“Yeah, George is out in the car!” she says after a scheduled 45- minute chat ticks well over the hour mark.
“Yeah, we met through mutual friends, who were playing with him for the Highlanders at the time. Three months later he proposed. Six months after meeting we moved to Ireland.”
Unlike Sene, George can never become Irish qualified as he was capped by the New Zealand Sevens in 2005. He broke into the Highlanders Super Rugby squad about a year later.
“George was going good for Hawks Bay Magpies, playing six and covering secondrow. Thomas Waldrom was the eight at the time, so it was unfortunate that he missed out on a Super Rugby contract.”
So, like so many Kiwis have done, he looked north. Tim Allnutt and Eric Elwood lured him to Galway on a six-month deal at the end of 2009.
“When Connacht came up I knew of Ray Ofisa, he had played for North Otago and was a family friend, so it made the big world seem a little smaller. You know, when you know someone!” he says.
You Kiwis are everywhere.
“So are you Irish!”
The still sparse turnout at The Sportsground took to big George as he helped Connacht reach the Challenge Cup semi-final, where they lost to Toulon, in 2010.
“I remember coming over here for the first time during a really, really cold snap,” says George. “Minus something. Here I was, coming from nice weather in shorts and T-shirts, and there we were with icicles on the Astroturf and training full on. But the people here were so hospitable. It was a club that wanted to progress every season.”
It’s a nomadic life and Naoupu took up a contract with Japanese side the Kobelco Steelers in 2010 but the icicles and Elwood drew them back out west.
“There was the language barrier but playing rugby in Japan was like being part of a world class soccer team,” George explains. “You had to sit on the bench some weeks because they are so interested in developing the game that only two or three foreigners are on the field at any one time. It made it difficult as half our team were foreigners, you needed to be lucky to get a game.
“Connacht didn’t want us to leave in the first place so we went back to make something of it. I still feel I had something to offer, something to give back and develop as a player, maybe branch off as a coach. It was a place to learn and play rugby.”
And so began Senshaper with their partner Maggie Newell-Leifi.
“Thank God, things are getting really busy now,” says Sene. “Group and personal trainers are beginning to licence it in sports facilities and gyms. In terms of the brand, we would have a team of instructors that would teach it; it’s done to choreographed music which changes every month or so. My home town gym in Oamaru is looking to licence it so we are rolling it out slowly in New Zealand; but we have instructors in Cork that we need to train, Athlone, Galway and Dublin. Kildare is another, Tipperary too.”
The wonder is how they find time to be husband and wife.
“She’s always up early and the last one to sleep. So anywhere in between. We do make time.”
Their fifth wedding anniversary came and went the week of the Italy game so George kidnapped Sene for a quick two-day trip to Spain.
“She’s still always on the phone talking with clients so I hold her bags, stay out of the way, as husbands do!”
“George is a great help to me! We work well. I’m up at 5.15am most days, except when we meet for camp I get a lie in as we have mobility at 7am. God, my days are so full on. He is actually more helpful than he probably thinks.”
Naoupu is a part of the Ireland Sevens high performance unit as well as being an integral part of the Six Nations midfield this season – spinning away for an impressive try against Wales – as Jenny Murphy went the other way by focusing fully on Sevens. It’s going to be a treat when the pair of them eventually link up for the last Olympic qualifier in Dublin this June.
Naoupu won her first cap for Ireland last year in Florence. George flew over to see her come off the bench with five minutes to play on a bitterly cold night. “I was teary-eyed watching her run out – just so proud – especially after all the hard work she has had to do with both the business and rugby.”
She wells up remembering the experience.
“This is a big statement because I don’t know what it felt like to put a black jersey on but I felt it fulfilled it even more. I felt a sense of pride, I felt very humbled to wear the green jersey. It represented all the years that I trained so hard. Very proud especially running out against Wales at Donnybrook. To play with players like Niamh Briggs and the other senior girls like Ailis Egan is special.
“I felt I represented my family. By coming over here we were representing where we come from. At the same time I would consider ourselves Galwegians so Galway and little old Oamaru were both represented.”
The Naoupus are not leaving Galway any time soon?
“Ah sure, we’ll see what happens,” says Sene. “Rugby-wise, there is a big focus next year. It is right up there on my list of goals to make that World Cup squad but we aren’t looking too far ahead.”
George’s contract is up this summer but he has been coaching the Galwegians and Connacht women. Bundee Aki also lends a hand.
We end by telling Sene she is a role model.
But you are.
“When you set up a business you need to be a leader of some sort...To be honest it would be something I would be honoured to be. The whole squad are role models. I love rugby, I am very passionate about it so if I can help to promote the sport in Ireland, encourage young girls to take up the sport, that would only be a good thing.
“Because we need more girls to have a look at rugby as you never know the opportunities that might come from it. There is also the social aspect, the whole sisterhood that rugby can offer off the pitch to girls if they just give it a go.”
When the interview ends, she adds something (for clarity): “Going through the Sevens trials since 2012 is something that I am so proud of. To go through the almost identical trial process to New Zealand all over again all these years later, I felt really grateful for the second opportunity. When you get close to your 30s you don’t think you will get a chance again.
“I enjoyed every minute of it this time around. It was great that it wasn’t just handed to me. I had to work hard all over again. The exact same challenges.”
But you are a different woman now? “Exactly. That’s what I meant about putting the Ireland jersey on. It was my second chance. Literally. It was even harder the second time than it was the first. But even more special.
“Full circle, I guess.”