When Sene Naoupu landed in Ireland in December 2009, there was no way she could have known that, 10 years later, she’d be one of our most high-profile international athletes.
The New Zealand native flocked to Galway back in the late-noughties with her rugby-playing husband George, who had signed with Connacht.
It was a short-term deal, six months, that’s all. The pair had already agreed to go to Japan to sample the growing game of rugby in the Far East.
However, despite the cold weather and constant rain, the Naoupu’s fell in love with the Emerald Isle. So much so, that they never wanted to leave. It’s clear that they feel a deep connection to the country.
“Absolutely. When we first came here for six months in December 2009, we were here for six months knowing 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 and it was our very first Christmas here and we’d met some homegrown county Galway people at the match. We ended up building a really great relationship and 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 and 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.”
A little over a decade since her arrival, women’s rugby has grown exponentially on these shores. From mini-rugby to club-level and on to provincial and international level, standards have sky-rocketed.
Naoupu has been there through it all, garnering 34 international caps along the way. She describes the game as totally different from when she first came to Ireland and credits competitions such as the Six Nations for presenting young women with a pathway into the sport.
“Yeah, it is. It is completely different.
“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 or not.”
Does Naoupu see herself as a role model for these young girls watching on as she takes to the field in the green jersey?
While she admits that is obviously the case, Naoupu has a refreshing take on what a role model should be.
“We are all role models whether you are an older brother or sister or a parent. 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. So yeah, absolutely and it’s something that a lot of us girls are honoured to even have that type of responsibility and the girls are fantastic.”
Ireland’s Six Nations campaign kicks off later today when Scotland roll into Donnybrook looking to take down Adam Griggs’ side.
Naoupu and her teammates will be itching for a more positive start than last year when they fell to a 44-point defeat to England at the same venue.
When put to Ireland’s outside-centre that the team need to perform, she retorts that that is always the case anytime you pull on an Ireland jersey.
“Yeah, we’re always needing to perform. Whoever gets the opportunity and the honour to represent Ireland against the teams in the Six Nations, there’s always a want that you put in a performance that you’re proud of.
“We believe that we’re certainly capable, and we’ve been working extremely hard to grind up some positive processes that hopefully will look after the result.”
However, despite the Six Nations normally being the showpiece event of the year, for Naoupu, Griggs, Griffin and co there’s something bigger at play in 2020 – qualification for next year’s World Cup in New Zealand.
The Kiwi native admits that, while the Six Nations is still important, Ireland’s busy season is all about building towards September’s qualification tournament involving Italy, Scotland and the winners of the 2020 Rugby Europe Women’s Championship.
“The bigger picture is… the Six Nations is certainly an extremely important tournament for us. It always has been an important tradition as well.
“From a performance point of view, there are some targets that we’re hoping to achieve within the Six Nations campaign as a squad. But obviously the World Cup qualifier is also incredibly important to us.
“This is a busy season, we have a busy schedule ahead with some summer games ahead that we’ve got in there in preparation for the World Cup qualifier in September. It’s a season of building towards that qualifier.”
Naoupu sat down for a chat ahead of today’s game to highlight an initiative being run by Six Nations sponsors Guinness.
The brand’s aim is to rally all of the pubs in Ireland to televise the crunch tie in Donnybrook and further increase the visibility of women’s sports across the island.
No better woman to make the face of such a campaign, somebody who has been at the forefront of the 20×20 movement since its inception last year.
“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. 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 of Ireland.
“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.”
“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. So 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 sort of drive that movement to ensure that it is still pushed forward and that girls stay involved or interested in taking up sport or stay active and those sorts of things.”
Pictured is Irish International and Leinster rugby player Sene Naoupu who has teamed up with the GUINNESS brand to rally support for Ireland’s Women’s team ahead of their upcoming Women’s Six Nations Championship campaign. The GUINNESS brand, as a proud Partner of the IRFU and Official Partner to the Women’s Six Nations, is encouraging pubs across the island of Ireland to screen the women’s forthcoming Six Nations Championship matches. On International Women’s Day, the GUINNESS brand will be offering 10,000 adults who are registered on the Match Pint App a complimentary pint of the black stuff. The GUINNESS brand will also be hosting screenings at the Guinness Open Gate Brewery for Ireland’s away games against England and France, on Sunday 23rd February and Sunday 15th March respectively. Credit ©INPHO/Tommy Dickson