How did a Kiwi-Samoan girl from Oamaru end up captaining the Irish women’s rugby team? Ashley Stanley talks to Sene Naoupu about her incredible career on and off the field, including her analysis of the Rugby World Cup, in our ‘Pacific sportswomen giving back’ series. 

Being fearless has taken Sene Naoupu around the globe.

It’s led her from the town of Oamaru in the South Island of Aotearoa, to the boardrooms of Adidas in Germany and the rugby fields of Ireland.

The Kiwi-born Samoan has scaled many heights throughout her sporting career and now the recently retired Irish rugby vice-captain has found her way back home, in time to play her part in the Rugby World Cup.

“I’d always been a bit of a fearless child. I’m probably a bit more of a ‘Do now, ask for forgiveness later’ type of person, and looking back my family can attest to this,” laughs Naoupu. That fearless child is now doing professional doctorate research in rugby. 

Ideally, she’d be playing at this World Cup, the first to be played in the Southern Hemisphere, in front of family. But Ireland missed out on getting through to the major tournament in heart-breaking fashion this time last year – when a last-gasp converted try by Scotland knocked them out of the World Cup qualifier.

“We worked for so many years to try and get Ireland to the World Cup, but unfortunately we weren’t able to be here as a team,” Naoupu, 38, says. “But I’m grateful to Spark Sport and Three to be here in another capacity and hopefully represent Ireland that way.”

Irish centre Sene Naoupu distributes the ball v Spain in the RWC21 qualifying tournament. Photo: Getty Images. 

As one of three women’s rugby experts in New Zealand’s official broadcasting team for Spark Sport during this tournament, Naoupu says the importance of supporting the growth of the women’s game on screen is a privilege.

“It’s just another area I’m pretty passionate about. Getting more Pacific Island women on TV, or girls from small towns or those with minority backgrounds,” she says.

“And I’m a bit of a rugby nerd so I just love talking about rugby. So to be part of the team who has the responsibility of doing that is special.”

Naoupu’s resume shows the 48-test centre has a variety of passions and has impacted a number of areas away from the field, from grassroots to governance.

Global sport strategy is one of Naoupu’s strengths, and as a brand ambassador for Adidas she’s been working on “very exciting” projects with the three-stripe team in Germany around breaking barriers and inspiring young girls and women in sport. The project is focused on systemic change around access to sport, visibility of role models and leadership opportunities.

On the field, Naoupu has represented Ireland – since moving there in 2009 – in 15s, sevens and touch.

She moved to Galway as “a supportive rugby wife” when her husband at the time took up a professional rugby contract there.

But Naoupu (nee Fanene) had her own rugby roots. Growing up in Oamaru, she followed her brother into the game, playing for Waitaki Girls High (where her coach was Black Fern Annaleah Rush), then Otago University and Otago Spirit.

When she got to Ireland, she ended up lacing her boots again, even at one point, driving from Galway to Dublin three times a week to train.

She debuted for her newly adopted country in the 15s format in 2015, helping Ireland secure the Women’s Six Nations title that year. In 2016, Naoupu was recognised as Ireland’s player association women’s player of the year as well as the Irish rugby writers’ women’s player of the year.

Sene Naoupu hugged by Barbarians team-mates during their victory over South Africa at Twickenham last November.

And by 2017, she was suiting up in the emerald green at the Rugby World Cup in Ireland. Naoupu finished the year off as one of Ireland’s 30 most influential women by The Irish Times.

A career highlight was captaining Ireland against England at Twickenham in 2018. She played her last test, a Six Nations victory over Scotland, last year.

But Naoupu wasn’t simply a rugby player – she graduated in 2019 with a Master of Science in sport management.

There was a health scare in 2020 when a scan showed a tumour in Naoupu’s neck following an injury during a test against England. Surgery and rehabilitation took priority for the rest of the year before she took up a role at International Rugby Players early last year. As of September, Naoupu was the head of strategic projects and research there.

“I absolutely love the work and collaborating with World Rugby on a number of global projects that support the players’ journeys in and out of rugby,” says Naoupu, who was also appointed to World Rugby’s women advisory committee in 2020.

Having been involved in rugby as a player and administrator, Naoupu understands the importance of having research to inform decisions across the game. But there’s simply not enough data in the women’s game, she says.

“For sports to be fit for purpose, minimum standards need to be across a wide range of areas both in the women’s and men’s games,” she says. “So the more research out there, to help performance and education, the better it is for guidelines, frameworks, and policies for the women’s game.”

Naoupu’s Masters’ thesis focused on emergent models in the development and delivery of women’s rugby.

The findings were presented to World Rugby on the future of the women’s game. And the outcomes supported discussions around the inception of the global WXV competition, starting next year.

Spark Sport’s commentary team at the Rugby World Cup 2021 (L-R) Scotty Stevenson, Sene Naoupu, Kristina Sue and Les Elder. Photo: Suzanne McFadden

Her previous role at IRP helped inform the professional doctorate Naoupu also started in September at Dublin City University. She wants to look at the impact on decision-making on the player journey, in and out of rugby.

“It’s looking from a multi-disciplinary lens at the impact across stakeholders in areas such as wellbeing off the field, high performance and coaching pedagogy,” she says.

The difference between a professional doctorate and a PhD is the real-time application of research. “You bridge the theory into practice straight away, which is really interesting.”

Before leaving Ireland to cover the Rugby World Cup, Naoupu was elected chair of Bodywhys, Ireland’s national organisation focused on eating disorders.

“It’s actually become so prevalent in women in sport, and especially rugby,” she says. “So to develop and deliver programmes specific to educating coaches on that side of things is really important to me.”

Her drive to fulfil, and exceed expectations, comes down to being her best self so she can give to others across the areas she’s passionate about.

“First and foremost, I love it and I enjoy it. But also my family is a huge part of my ‘Why’ as well,” says Naoupu.

As the world tunes into Aotearoa for the next six weeks of the RWC, the courage and determination that’s taken Naoupu to all corners of the globe is being beamed into New Zealand homes.

And the advice she would give to women and girls will also put her in good stead. “100 percent believe in yourself,” she says. “Be fearless.”

* This weekend’s Rugby World Cup pool games schedule: On Saturday in Whangārei, Scotland vs Australia, 2.30pm; USA vs Japan, 5pm; France vs England, 7.30pm. On Sunday, Waitakere Stadium, Italy vs Canada, 12.15pm; New Zealand vs Wales, 2.45pm; Fiji vs South Africa, 5.30pm. All live on Spark Sport (Black Ferns game delayed on Three).

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