When Sene Naoupu first came to Ireland, in 2009, it was as a ‘rugby wife.’ It was her husband’s career that brought them here – George was playing for Connacht rugby union. “Yes, absolutely,” she says with a laugh. “I’m not ashamed to say it at all. At the time, I was very fortunate for the opportunity to get to travel and experience that lifestyle. And certainly, in that phase, I didn’t think I would make a comeback into rugby as much as I have.”
Not that Sene was following blind – she is an impressive entrepreneur, with a Masters in governance and change management, and at the time had her own lifestyle and fitness business, Senshaper, since sold – and ‘comeback’ seems a very modest description, both for where she was coming from, and where she has reached. Because in fact what Sene is talking about is going from ‘rugby wife’, to representing Ireland in Women’s Rugby, at 7s, 15s, and touch rugby. She was part of the squad that won the 2015 Women’s Six Nations Championship, and now of the 2020 Six Nations Campaign.
The youngest of four, with four more half brothers and sisters in Australia on her late father’s side, Sene grew up in Omaru, a New Zealand-born first generation Samoan, and played sports from a young age – cricket, softball, touch rugby and basketball – with her siblings and cousins. “We grew up in a relatively small house with a massive backyard, lots of space, fruit trees and vegetable plots, it was awesome.”
By the time she was 13, she was representing her country at basketball, travelling to Australia – “looking back, that experience at a young age, was probably the turning point of my life. It was so amazing – we were in a team, training, we travelled to Australia. It certainly contributed to me wanting more of it as I got older, pushing myself to be that best at whatever it was” – and she went to the University of Otago on a basketball scholarship.
“I loved every sport,” she says. “I played anything, often with the boys.” She started playing rugby union when she was 13 – “inspired by my older brother, Ali” – and gradually, it became her main focus. Aged 19, she was part of a New Zealand women’s national rugby union team training squad. But Life intervened, as Life so often does, and for Sene it was in the form of disordered eating. That was when she was at university. “I remember feeling extremely overwhelmed in my early 20s. I had a lot going on and put unnecessary pressure on myself to perform at everything – work, university, rugby academy, club and provincial teams, national trials, a toxic long-distance relationship at the time. Results weren’t reflecting the work put in, so over time, it got disappointing. I began to lose self-confidence and self-love. I essentially became the opposite person to what and who I naturally am.”
“The eating disorder I developed became a coping mechanism – eating disorders aren’t necessarily about food. Rather, how the emotional distress and turmoil manifests itself. It’s a complex psychological disorder; it’s not only hard for those on the outside to understand, but it’s bloody challenging for the person themselves to understand why they’re feeling compelled to do what they are doing. I knew it was unhealthy but removing yourself from denial was too scary and it triggered resistance. For a couple of years I couldn’t help myself, until I did help myself.”
She had to give up rugby for a time, which derailed her hopes, and so, by the time Sene came to Ireland, in her mid-20s – she’s now 35 – there was an added fire to her determination: “It was now or never for me, at that stage of my life,” she says. “Those challenges, that was also part of my motivation and my drive. I’m actually really thankful that happened,” she says. “It was a couple of bad years. But if it hadn’t, this would probably be a completely different life. I’m a big believer that we’re here for a reason.”
That first year, Sene and George arrived in Galway in December, “it was so cold,” she recalls, “but we fell in love with the place. Our very first Christmas here, we met some Irish people and they invited us into their home. That eased our way, and set the tone for what we found was a really family-orientated community.”
At the time, Sene was running her fitness business, licensing the programme to gyms and studios. As a result, she was “fitter than I ever had been. That’s what encouraged me to make a decision. I believed in myself enough that when I saw Irish Rugby advertising a Talent Identification camp for 7s, that was my trigger – I thought, ‘maybe this is my chance?’”
It was her chance. And she threw herself into it. For several years, she drove from Galway to Dublin “most days of the week, to train and be involved,” without any guarantee of success. She committed to her dream of playing for Ireland even before she qualified for residency here. “I decided I would give it a shot. That was a gamble. There were no guarantees I would make the squad.” She also made a decision to delay starting a family. “Where I was at the stage of my life, a lot of my peers, a lot of my close friends, were starting families. I felt I had more to give to rugby before that. Something like this, one of the biggest goals in my life, it’s more than sport. So I made the decision to put a family on hold…”
Partly, the drive comes from her personal story – the unfinished business of her earlier sporting years – but partly too it is from love for her adopted country. “George and I, we love Ireland as if it’s our own. Representing Ireland, it’s a dream come true for me. We’ll always remember where we come from, but being in a position where you can represent the homeland you come from, but also our new homeland… It’s the highest honour to represent Ireland, but with it comes the highest responsibility. So while I swell with emotion and fire in the belly, it’s important to keep a cool head and channel those emotions into a performance that will help the team.”
During Sene’s recovery, family were key, but so was sport. “After I graduated I decided to move back home and be surrounded by family and friends in my home-town. My sister had just given birth to one of my nieces, I ended up getting a really cool job that reminded me that I was a people person with the ability to motivate, empower and encourage, I got back involved in sport and played social basketball and coached rugby, and I eventually returned to play provincially. Then I met George through close friends, and the rest as they say, is history.”
These, she says “are the moments of grace that become the biggest turning points in our lives. I owe everything to my family, friends, my community in Oamaru, hence why I’m motivated to represent not only Ireland, but where I come from. The small town in Oamaru that raised me then bought me back to life.”
Sene is on the board of directors of Bodywhys, the Eating Disorders Association of Ireland – “telling my story is not about me as much as it is about the story of hope. Helping young people, anyone really, who is going through something. Helping them to open up and reveal a vulnerability, and understand that there’s power in that.”
She is also part of the International Rugby Players Council and Rugby Athletes Commission in partnership with World Rugby, and an advocate of keeping girls playing sport into their teenage years. “As girls get into their teens, it’s quite common that they are too shy to do things because they might not have the confidence to be able to jump or run. But sport is a huge contributor to self-confidence, self-belief, and a healthy body image. It gives you a sense of belonging to a community, a sense of empowerment.”
And that empowerment in turn means acceptance. “Your experiences, good and bad, shape who you become. I’m thankful to have gone through those dark moments and come out the other end to express who I really am – that awful experience was my northern star. At the end of the day, all you need is hope and strength. Hope that it’ll get better, and strength to hold on until it does.”
Pictured above 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, find out more at guinnessopengate.com.