Irish rugby has another not-so-secret Kiwi weapon plotting Six Nations glory
Wife and husband team having a season to remember.
When Sené Naoupu packed her bags and left New Zealand, with husband George, she was unsure of what awaited in Ireland. The pair arrived in Galway, in 2009, and George played a season with Connacht before heading off for a short spell in Japan's Top League.
He returned to Ireland in 2011 and, with his wife's support, threw all his energies into the team's three seasons of Heineken Cup rugby. Connacht are in the Challenge Cup quarter finals this season but are chasing a top six finish that will secure a spot in the Champions Cup.
Sené cheered her husband on, all the while, but was also putting down roots in Connacht. She set up a health and lifestyle coaching business and got involved in three charities, including ACT for Meningitis. Her sister, Sina Fanene, contracted bacterial meningitis in 2005. It ended her promising sporting career but, 10 years on, she has just about made a full recovery.
Naoupu was a talented rugby player back in New Zealand and, still possessing a love of the game, it did not take her long to get involved in the sport out in Galway. She can readily play at out-half but regularly features for her club at 12 or 13.
She joined Galwegians and, coincidentally, was soon to be coached by husband George. She tells SportsJOE, 'George puts in a lot of work with the team and spends heaps of time planning before each training session. He is great at analysing our play and the opposition and coming up with gameplans.'
George must brush off the disappointment of a controversial loss to Cardiff, on Friday, to coach Galwegians Women in their All-Ireland quarter final with Blackrock, this Sunday. 'I have been released to play,' says Sené, 'so I can't wait to give it a lash.'
Similar to the men's game, a female rugby player becomes eligible to play for a country if she has not been capped at Test level before and has had three consecutive years as a resident. Naoupu was approached about getting involved with Ireland Sevens, and playing at Rio 2016.
She has trained extensively with the squad but her international breakthrough came with the fifteens. Her Test debut came against Italy in February. Along with Tania Rosser, Naoupu has added some Kiwi flair to proceedings. She says:
I am learning loads. There are so many experienced internationals and quality players in the team. The coaches saw something in me and I am grateful to be involved. I am training really hard and waiting for my shot.
Naoupu was on the replacements bench for the home games against France and England. They were differing experiences. During the defeat to France, the lights went out. Naoupu says, 'These things happen. [Ireland captain] Niamh Briggs was great at keeping us focused and motivated in the dressing room. Unfortunately, we could not get the late score.'
World champions England were next in the door at Ashbourne RFC. They left with the shrill cheers of a delighted home crowd ringing in their ears as a Larissa Muldoon try and two Briggs penalties gave Ireland victory.
'Our focus now is on Wales. Training with the Irish girls has been hard all week,' she says. 'We will meet again on Monday and start working on the specifics for the game. We are going to go out and do the best we can.' Another win would set up a match against Scotland that, if the result and points difference go in Ireland's favour, secure a second Six Nations in three seasons.
Naoupu, if all goes well, could yet represent Ireland at Rio 2016 and, the following year, the Women's World Cup, which Ireland are bidding for. 'How cool would that be?' she rhetorically exclaims.
When she set off for Galway in 2009, could she ever foresee such a future?
'We had no real long term plans. We thought we would just embrace the adventure and see where it took us.
'We are loving it here in Ireland. What's not to love?'