When Sene Naoupu moved to Ireland 10 years ago, she never imagined she would become one of the country’s most high-profile international athletes.
The former Oamaru woman has represented Ireland in rugby sevens, 15s and touch across nine World Series, four European Championships, six Six Nations and two World Cups. Off the sporting field, she is an accomplished businesswoman, having founded companies promoting sport involvement, from participation to high performance.
She has also been named as one of the 30 most influential women in Ireland.
Rebecca Ryan tracks her down for a chat.
Q Where are you living at the moment?
Q Tell me about how you found yourself living in Ireland and representing the country in rugby.
I moved to Galway, Ireland from New Zealand about 10 years ago with my husband George and achieved Irish citizenship in 2016. We had stints in the UK with Harlequins Rugby and Japan at Kobelco Steelers in between, but the bulk of our time has been in Ireland with Galwegians Rugby, Connacht Rugby, and now I’m involved with Old Belvedere Rugby, Leinster Rugby and Irish Rugby.
As a side note, former North Otago rugby player Keiran Hallet is the defence coach for our Ireland women’s team. He’s been phenomenal along with our other coaches, like head coach Adam Griggs, who is from Christchurch.
Q Since becoming an Irish international player, you’ve used your platform to speak quite openly about past experiences with an eating disorder and mental health struggles – why did you decide to do that and what sort of response have you had?
I decided to open up about my past experiences with an eating disorder and mental health struggles, to give hope to those suffering in silence, that recovery is possible. As both a board director for national charity Bodywhys, the national association for eating disorders, and someone who has recovered and achieving their dreams, it’s my responsibility to raise awareness around what successful recovery can look like and to inform and educate those with or people caring for someone with an eating disorder, on the support systems available.
It was also timely to remind young girls to look after their mental health, body image and to accept who they are as opposed to wanting to look like something they are constantly exposed to on their phones. That can affect their interest and ability to participate in sport.
With the accessibility of social media, young girls in particular can be vulnerable. About 188,895 Irish people will experience an eating disorder at some point in their lives, but research shows early intervention is associated with better outcomes and faster recovery. I know what it’s like; growing up and being in two minds whether to play sport or not. But the benefits sport has given me far outweigh anything else. That’s where my passion lies in terms of encouraging young girls and women to be active and involved in sport not to be scared of it.
We recently launched the Health Service Executive’s first self care app which provides information for those with, or people caring for someone with, an eating disorder.
We’re also working on another project aimed at providing coaching education workshops across targeted national governing bodies and institutions. We’re developing an accessible resource for athletes, parents, teachers and coaches within the Sport Ireland coaching framework.
Q In 2017, you were listed as one of the 30 most influential women in Ireland – how did that feel?
To be honest, I was so focused on my work and training and performing well for Ireland in both sevens and 15s that year.
It was an extremely busy year living in England and having to commute to Ireland a few times a week for a number of months training full-time in the sevens programme and working in London as well, until we moved back to Dublin before the 2017 World Cup.
It was humbling and I’m very grateful, but any individual recognition is not possible without the team effort – in a sporting, business, community and family context. We all influence in our own way, you don’t need an accolade to keep contributing to your communities.
Q Away from rugby, what keeps you busy?
Family time is very important. Off the pitch as a businesswoman and in the community, I spearhead initiatives and campaigns promoting sport involvement, from leadership to participation to high performance. I have ambassadorial roles with Adidas, Bank of Ireland, Windsor Motors and Nissan while also collaborating with other iconic brands, including Guinness, Energia, Dove, Vodafone, Lucozade Sport, Aviva, Lifestyle Sports, An Post and others, who are aligned to my values and mission. The commercial partners I work with are fundamental to ensuring visibility that enables women’s sport and women’s rugby in Ireland to grow exponentially.
I have a number of governance positions as a board director for Bodywhys, one of the partner organisations of the Health Service Executive. I’m also grateful to be contributing to the future development of women’s rugby globally as part of the International Rugby Players Council and Rugby Athletes Commission in partnership with World Rugby.
Q How did you get the opportunity to serve up a pint of Guinness to Prince William and Kate Middleton, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge earlier this month?
I’ve been working with Guinness through their work on rugby and their support for the women’s game. In advance of the 2020 Six Nations, I helped launch their initiative encouraging pubs all over Ireland to screen our women’s Six Nations games. This call was designed to support the visibility of women’s rugby which is a key tool in terms of growing participation in the sport. I have also worked with the British Embassy as a speaker on panels and invited to attend various events and dinners at the embassy. I was delighted to be invited by Guinness to be part of the very special British Embassy event at the new Gravity Bar in the Guinness Storehouse with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Guinness asked me if I would host the couple for a pint and I was delighted to accept.
Q What did you talk to them about?
I welcomed the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to the new Gravity Bar in the Guinness Storehouse and asked how they were currently enjoying their Dublin visit. I congratulated Her Royal Highness on her comprehensive research on mental health and shared a passion for the issues she cares so much about, such as mental health in young children and the importance of ensuring safe environments in a sporting culture like rugby. His Royal Highness also spoke about how their kids are enjoying rugby and asked about how our Irish team were doing in the Six Nations and how long I’ve played rugby for. We spoke about other topics and I was impressed by their knowledge and passion for rugby. I then led them in a toast through Irish, Samoan and English – Slainte, Manuia, Cheers!
It was surreal to be representing Ireland rugby and Guinness to toast The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s visit to the new Gravity Bar. It’s a story for the grandkids, that their grandma had a drink on a school night with the Queen Consort and King of England at the home of Guinness!
Q How often do you come back to Oamaru?
At least once a year. I aim to get back home for Christmas every year and during the year for any special occasion. Yes, I was home for a few days last October, fortunate to surprise my sister Hana Halalele for her inauguration as Waitaki’s first Pasifika councillor. I’m proud of the work she and fellow Waitaki District Council elected members are doing, especially to ensure communities are supported during these challenging times.
Q What are your favourite memories growing up here?
I loved running around in the backyard with my siblings Sina, Hana and Ali, and cousins Wayne, Ralph and Manulua. We grew up in a small house with a massive backyard – lots of space, fruit trees and vegetable plots – it was awesome. The Waitaki Community Recreation Centre was only a block away, too. I spent many a day there training and playing basketball. I’ll always remember being coached for basketball by our physical education teacher Mr Selby at Waitaki Girls’ High School and Brian de Geest who was a huge mentor and coach as I was playing basketball competitively. When I was in primary school, my favourite memories were watching my brother, Ali, play rugby at Centennial Park. He played in the number 10 position and reminded me of Carlos Spencer with how he entertained and managed the game and inspired me to give rugby a go, too.