Rugby: Everything clicking now for Naoupu

Sene Naoupu enjoys a brief visit back to Oamaru. Photo by Rebecca Ryan.
Sene Naoupu enjoys a brief visit back to Oamaru. Photo by Rebecca Ryan.
She is the Oamaru girl who played rugby for Otago, married a Highlander, battled an eating disorder, started her own business and helped the Irish women's team win the Six Nations. Sports editor Hayden Meikle catches up with the dazzling, delightful Sene Naoupu.

Where to start with the most interesting rugby player to come out of Oamaru since that Hakataramea Valley couple decided to call their son Richard Hugh?Let's begin with her role in helping the Irish rugby team win the Six Nations. Yes, Ireland. And yes, there is a women's Six Nations.

Sene Naoupu (nee Fanene) has been living in Ireland with her husband, former Highlanders loose forward George Naoupu, for four years, and after becoming eligible to play for her adopted country, made her test debut at the start of this year in Florence, Italy. That's what you might call a long way from Centennial Park.

''Gosh, it was funny. We were singing the anthem - and I do know the Irish anthem, by the way - and I could see George with his phone up, shooting a little video. It was quite surreal.

''This whole time, I've been following and supporting his career. It was great to see him in Italy, sort of representing my family back in Oamaru.''

The Irish women lost to France but won their four other tests and claimed the Six Nations title.

Ireland is hosting the Women's Rugby World Cup in 2017 and Naoupu (31) is re-assembling with her team-mates on August 1 to begin a two-year countdown.

The five-eighth dreamed of being a Black Fern but is now proud to wear Irish green at test level.

''I love the Irish girls. They're a brilliant bunch. I love the banter and the craic, but they're all so humble. It kind of reminds me of girls back here.''

Naoupu was co-hosting a radio sports show in New Zealand when she met her future husband, a loose forward who played for Canterbury and Tasman before a stint with the Highlanders.

''I remember there were some new guys in the Highlanders. It was a very Pacific Islandy radio station, so we wanted to find out more about the new Pacific Island guys in the Highlanders.

''George was the newest PI guy. Some friends of mine set us up and it went from there.''

The couple, who were married in Christchurch in 2011, headed to Ireland for six months, then had a year in Japan, then returned to Galway, where George has become a mainstay of the Connacht club.

While in Japan, Sene Naoupu dipped her toes into rugby coaching.

''It was really random. George is fluent in Japanese but mine is just very basic. I knew enough to coach the Kobe girls team, which was a bit of fun.''

Naoupu did not immediately play rugby in Ireland. She had lost touch with the sport while at university in Dunedin and dealing with some difficult times.

She was diagnosed with anorexia and, after rising through the ranks with University and the Otago Spirit, and making a Black Ferns trial squad, she walked away.

''I got sick of it. I just had too much rugby and pressure on my plate,'' Naoupu said.

''It was a tough time. Rugby, university - I felt pressure to achieve all these things. It was just my sort of mentality. I was desperate to do well.

''My rugby sort of fell apart. I didn't get to represent New Zealand at a time that I knew I could. I knew I was good enough.

''I'm comfortable talking about it [anorexia], but at the same time, it's not about victimising myself. It's more just the process. That experience was . . . it was a game-changer, in all areas. It changed my sport and my career and those things. It's almost why I wanted to come back into rugby and finish off what I started.

''The disease got in the way, but I realised, as I got older, that I still had the drive to achieve something in rugby.

''The timing was right and everything just came together.''

Away from rugby, Naoupu is flat-tack with a business she started with an Irish colleague. She does health and lifestyle coaching, a passion that developed after studying holistic lifestyle coaching in the United States.

They train private clients and help them with nutrition and exercise, and run group fitness programmes and workshops. Naoupu also does ''corporate wellness'' speaking.

A brief spell back in Oamaru has given her time to catch up with her mother - a stalwart of the vibrant Oamaru Pasifika community - and two sisters, before she and her husband return to Galway.

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