Ton up for import who couldn't wait to return to second home
Hard-carrying Kiwi on verge of landmark as he justifies decision to bring him back from Japan
Published 24/04/2015 | 02:30
On the verge of his century of caps for the province, Connacht No 8 George Naoupu reflects on the journey so far with a smile.
The 31-year old has played 99 times for Connacht, touching down on nine occasions and it's easy to see why he's such a fans' favourite in the Sportsground.
He loves Galway and the people he has met during his stay here. Even throughout his brief stopover in Japan in 2010, the former All Black Sevens star couldn't disguise his longing to return.
After his first season in Ireland, where he won over the hearts of the Connacht faithful, Naoupu moved to the Far East and plied his trade with the Kobe Steelers.
But he was never happy and jumped at the chance to return to his second home - he's now four years down the line and looking forward to setting a milestone that didn't look likely when he was playing Top League rugby in Japan.
"To reach the 100-mark would be massive. I have been moving around especially from New Zealand and Japan and now over here in Connacht," he says.
"I am actually really well settled in and I am just glad I can give something back to rugby as 100 caps was something that I never thought I would do, but it is quite an honour and some achievement.
"I chose to come to Connacht originally because of the location - it was a brilliant place that I had heard a lot about from previous lads who were here - and also I found the people very welcoming when I first arrived here with my wife.
"The biggest thing that excited me was to be able to continue on with my career and use my experience to help a team like Connacht out.
"Being able to put it on the map and work well with the lads they have here and being able to build good base relationships between the branch and the supporters here. . ."
Naoupu played Super Rugby with the Dunedin-based Highlanders before moving to the northern hemisphere.
And despite a successful first season where Connacht got to the Challenge Cup semi-final, taking on Toulon at the Sportsground, Naoupu joined the Steelers.
But he explains why it didn't click for him in Japan and he became disillusioned with the brand of rugby and the loneliness he felt.
"It was just the one season that I spent there and I was fortunate enough to be able to come back again with Eric Elwood still in charge here at the time," he says.
"We didn't really want to leave but because we were tied into something with the Japanese contract, we had to fulfil that part.
"Every country has their own standards of play - with Japan it is a country that has developing players coming through.
"But also there was the language barrier so having to try and learn a language, being able to get the processes right where they want to be playing to the international standards was not easy.
"It's a very difficult place to understand what they want when you don't speak their language. They expect you to be Superman, carry everything, run everything and tackle everything."
But luckily for Naoupu he was never going to cut ties with Connacht and the link ensured there would be a happy ending for the former New Zealand U-21 star.
"We were talking to Eric and one thing led to another and we were both happy to come back, myself and my wife and Connacht were happy to have us come back as well," he recalls.
"To reconnect with them, the people at the branch and the supporters was special."
Since his return it has been a whirlwind few years, not just for George or his wife Sene, who went on to play for the Irish Women's side - but for Connacht as a brand.
He has witnessed the Heineken Cup nights first hand, the swelling of attendances and this season's race to secure a Champions Cup spot, but Naoupu was there for the bad days too and that helps to keep him stay grounded amid the hype.
"To be a part of the franchise at the moment and being able to try and build the brand of Connacht Rugby is the most enjoyable part of my rugby career so far," he says.
"Obviously with this season going really well and that build up from previous seasons to get to where we are now. . . Having things in our hands at this stage of the season is great.
"At the same time we are developing young players coming through from throughout the Connacht region and management is allowing them to express themselves through the academy and on the big stage here as well."
In January Naoupu activated the one-year option on his contract and will be staying until at least next year, but one feels he won't be in a rush to leave then either.
"I am pretty happy with how I'm playing at the moment. It has been a long season and we have seen guys swap in and swap back out and you have to be able to bring your performances through.
"I am happy to make an impact, anybody who had seen when I was involved last season it was pretty disappointing for me, but to come out this season and being able to play the way that I am and get amongst it. . .
"I feel instead of being 31 I'm playing like a 25-year old and that is quite an unusual feat but I suppose you get better the older you get."