Ireland star Naoupu always looking to give more on second coming
It was hard to take your eyes off Sene Naoupu at the UCD Bowl on the final Sunday in November last year. Not just because she was the New Zealand-born player in action in the centre of the Irish team against the Black Ferns.
Or because she looked equally at ease with her attacking runs as she did with her robust tackling in defence. But her performance was also eye-catching because it felt like there was something larger at play.
There was a time when it wouldn't have occurred to Naoupu that a day might come when she would play against the country of her birth.
Naoupu grew up in the New Zealand town of Oamaru in the south island, raised by her single mother and reared on rugby.
She started playing when she was 13 for North Otago and was involved in rugby academies from the age of 18. She looked set for the big time. But when she had a trial with the Black Ferns at the age of 21 as an out-half she didn't make the cut. She stopped playing rugby for a few years as she battled an eating disorder and depression.
When the 32-year-old lined up against New Zealand last November with her confidence long restored and her rugby career resurrected, it felt like her life had come full circle. Playing for Ireland feels like a second chance to her.
The night before the game, Naoupu was asked by head coach Tom Tierney to present the Ireland jerseys to her team-mates. It was the first time in our conversation this week that Naoupu's voice started to break as she recalled that meeting.
"Playing for Ireland is a huge honour, let alone being asked to present the jerseys ahead of the New Zealand game," Naoupu says.
As she tries to describe the feeling of playing for Ireland against the Black Ferns, Naoupu begins to well up. It was her 14th time playing for the Ireland but everything about this game ran off a different riff for her.
"It was a humbling experience to play New Zealand and it will always be a special moment in my life," Naoupu adds.
"It was a real sort of defining moment I think because of what it represented - the period of time that I was away from rugby for a few years because of sickness and then to make a comeback for a country that I absolutely love. . ."
It's not too common in rugby that a question about a player's partner has direct relevance. But Naoupu isn't like most other rugby players because her husband is a professional, which has, naturally, a huge influence on her. Sene and George initially moved to Ireland from New Zealand in 2009 when George joined Connacht. When they returned to Connacht for the 2011/12 season after a year in Japan, Sene had the confidence to get back playing rugby again.
"For years I was living vicariously through George's career," Naoupu smiles. "If it wasn't for him, I might not have returned to playing rugby."
Naoupu is a prominent face in the recent promotional campaign for this summer's Women's Rugby World Cup in Dublin and Belfast, which isn't surprising because she also has a natural magnetism about her. In a previous interview, her husband George said: "People just gravitate towards Sene".
Sure, he's biased! But her Samoan heritage seems to guide her attitude to others.
"We're very family orientated," she explains. "We like to look out for each other and it's something that we naturally do; be there for your team-mates when they need you most."
There's friends with benefits and then there's team-mates like Naoupu.
"Sene is fully of energy. She has that ability to motivate others and make them want to work hard," Ireland international Alison Miller says. "She's a very kind and caring person and she'll always have a word of praise. For me, that doesn't go unnoticed."
Naoupu's selflessness extends to her role on the field - she is happy to play centre for Ireland.
"I grew up playing No 10 since I was 13 years old so I always enjoyed learning how to bring people into the game and recognising space on attack, both in the moment and where it will be after a few phases," she says.
"Ireland play me at 12, which I've come to love and enjoy. I'm grateful that Tom and Anthony allow that 12 position to be the second playmaker so I haven't lost any instinctive influence in certain moments.
"I'm constantly learning about all three positions (10, 12, 13) and reinvented myself to be more mentally and physically stronger for that 12 role if required there."
"She's a very creative player," Miller adds. "She's got huge playmaking abilities. She runs very good lines. She has a good blend of playing off the cuff but also sticking to the structure. For a player playing outside her, it's very exciting because you know that she can make something happen."
2017 will be a landmark year for Irish women's rugby with the World Cup. When George was released from Connacht last season, the Naoupus had to leave Ireland. They moved to London with George signing for Harlequins and Sene playing with their women's team.
So she flies back to Dublin for training camps as the women's team build-up for the Six Nations and then the summer.
"It would be a long-time dream come true (to play in the World Cup)," she says. "That is my ultimate motivation this year."
Hours after we finished our interview I got a text from Naoupu saying she thought of something else she would like to add.
Typical of Sene - always wanting to give more.
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