Tuesday 12 December 2017

Naoupu aiming to write next chapter

London-based Kiwi-born centre crucial to Ireland’s hopes of claiming Grand Slam

Naoupu is as driven off the pitch as she is on it and Ireland have benefited hugely from having her in their midfield for the last couple of seasons. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Naoupu is as driven off the pitch as she is on it and Ireland have benefited hugely from having her in their midfield for the last couple of seasons. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

Life is different for Sene Naoupu nowadays.

The pace of life in London is a far cry from her previous more serene Galway setting but it's a challenge that Naoupu has met head on.

"I'm in a plane and on a train more often than I am driving," she laughs.

Naoupu is as driven off the pitch as she is on it and Ireland have benefited hugely from having her in their midfield for the last couple of seasons.

It says a lot about her quality that she was contracted to the Sevens programme, but then again, she is a Kiwi and playing rugby is what they love best.

Detour

Moving to Ireland from New Zealand with her husband George, who joined Connacht in 2009, was just another step along the way and after a brief detour to Japan for a year, the pair settled in Galway.

Naoupu has always credited George for reigniting her passion for rugby and after putting it on the back burner for many years, she decided to return, and Ireland have since reaped the rewards.

With only 16 caps to her name, the 33-year old has made up for lost time with some outstanding performances. Having Jenny Murphy back to full fitness now means that Ireland have a genuine world-class centre partnership on their hands.

Murphy's aggression is complemented well by Naoupu's subtlety inside her and in tandem, the pair are a real force.

Striking the right balance between her health and lifestyle business and her performances is made all the more tricky by the fact that she is now living in London, but rather than look at the obstacles in the way, Naoupu's ultra-positive outlook allows her to use it to her advantage.

Having made over 100 appearances for Connacht, George is now with Harlequins, while Sene also plays in the Premiership with the Aylesford Bulls.

"It has been a bit of a change but it's just about making the adjustment and making sure that I recover well so I can perform at my best," Naoupu says.

"The level of competition in the Premiership is really high. It's a great standard there. With the English girls in those competitions, they have been able to set up base in terms of going full-time.

"It's an experience I'm really grateful to have because it's a different type of rugby over there, but it's also a great competition here in Ireland.

"In terms of my family, George is a huge a source of support. It's a bit of a team effort when it comes to organising things. I have a strong network of colleagues here in Ireland who help me run the business.

"There is a lot of teamwork off the field, and it's not just me, it's the other girls as well who have support networks in place to allow us to perform for our country. It's something that is hugely important for us.

"For those who support us and enable us to perform for Ireland - they're the unsung heroes."

A former out-half in New Zealand, Naoupu didn't quite make it into the Black Ferns set-up and afterwards took some time to plan her next step.

When Ireland offered her a second chance, it was one she jumped at, although she insists that winning potential Grand Slams didn't come into her thinking as she focused on just getting back playing the game she loved.

"To be honest, it didn't. I just had to focus on working really hard to make the training squad in the first place," she says.

"In terms of going for a Grand Slam, it would be a huge step in the right direction for Irish rugby but even to get here through four tough wins is already a positive step.

"As a squad, we've been building from game to game and to be able to grind out wins right to the last minute is a huge credit to the whole squad.

"There was absolutely a belief within this squad that we can win every match. There is a huge belief that we can get those wins."

While results didn't go Ireland's way in their first ever November Series, Naoupu believes that it has proven to be a real turning point for this team.

"It allowed us to try out different combos under that sort of pressure in internationals matches," she says.

"It was hugely valuable and while the results might not necessarily have gone our way, there were some huge positives from those matches. Every single one of us was learning. It wasn't a matter of certain girls having to come up to this level."

Ireland now feel that they are edging closer to the level that they want to be at again but there is still plenty of work to be done to repeat the Grand Slam success in 2013.

Although she wasn't in the Ireland set-up then, Naoupu recalls the ripple effect it had around the country.

"I absolutely remember watching the game as a fan," she enthuses. "Fiona Coghlan was captaining them and the way that they lifted the country, especially women's sport, was a huge achievement."

Ireland now stand on the brink of writing the latest chapter into the annals of women's rugby history but Naoupu has a great appreciation of the level that England are operating at, having played against their players in the Premiership recently.

But this is where her latest challenge lies and judging by how she has handled herself so far along the way, you wouldn't back against her having a major say in Donnybrook this evening.

Irish Independent

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