Becoming an Irish national rugby player, having grown up in a small village in New Zealand is not something that happens every day. It’s also not something that’s easy to accomplish. It takes lots of hard work, dedication, and the will to go after your dream, no matter how hard it may get.
But it’s not impossible. I got the chance to sit down and talk to Sene Naoupu, who took this dream and made it a reality.
Active from the very start
Sene’s story began in 1984, when she was born in New Zealand. She grew up with three siblings to a single mother in a village just north of Otago. Always passionate about sport, she spent most of her childhood playing volleyball, basketball, netball, and touch rugby with her brother and cousins in her backyard. When I asked her, how she felt about sitting down with me to talk about her career and everything she’s achieved along the way, she simply smiled and said, “it means everything to me.”
What immediately struck me was that she said basketball was her first love growing up. When I asked her why she decided to follow a path into rugby instead: “Rugby was more inclusive, and I felt a sense of belonging. It was better supported at the time compared to basketball, it was better supported in terms of pathways and structures”. If she had, had a choice, would she have gone for basketball? – “100%”, she says. At that time, she didn’t realize how her career journey would unfold, or know of her future success in her chosen sport.
Working twice as hard for success
Pursuing her career, Sene made it to the top twice: First in New Zealand where she played for several years, almost making it onto the national team, and later in Ireland, having moved there with her husband at the time.
Having taken a break from rugby due to personal reasons, it was in Ireland where she rebuilt her career. In the beginning, she joined a club just to meet friends, but her passion for the sport triggered her to rediscover her dream.
Going after that dream, she drove from Dublin to Galway three times a week to train, and after some time, she made the rugby 15s and later the Irish Sevens. She debuted for the Irish national team at the 2015 Women’s Six Nations Championship, which they also won. In 2016, she was named Women’s Player of the Year by the Rugby Writers of Ireland and was listed as one of the thirty most influential women in Ireland by the Irish Times.
The importance of family and self-belief
Throughout these ups and downs, who were the most important people who supported her along the way? “Oh 100% my mom and siblings. They knew me, they knew I had to go for it, and they were just so supportive because they understood what I’d gone through to get to that place mentally and physically.”
Despite having to move around New Zealand and later across the globe, her mother will always be her heroine. As a single mother of four, she sacrificed a lot, but that led to the family becoming very, very close. This closeness created an environment for Sene to grow and become the successful person she is today.
When I asked her what she would say to her younger self, her response was clear and direct: “Believe in yourself.” This self-belief helped her to become captain of the Irish side for one of the big games against England at Twickenham in 2018. Although they didn’t win the match, the way they played and the way she convinced the team that they had world-class athleticism in their DNA was remarkable, as Sene described it. “The way we believed in ourselves and came together against the odds, is something I’ll remember forever.”, she added with a smile.
“Those opportunities would not have come if I didn’t believe in myself, and then had the attitude to do it all over again. Now, I feel just grateful, blessed, and unstoppable.”
Looking to the future
If she could change one thing about the world of sport as it is today, it would be “to promote, value and support pathways and opportunities for girls and women in sport, on and off the pitch.” Even though Sene retired from an active career in rugby in August 2022, she will continue to be a role model for women and girls all over the world, showing them that even though things may not look like they will work out in the first place, you should never stop chasing your dream.
It is on all of us to drive change, one day at a time. It doesn’t matter where you are from or who you are. If you put your heart and soul into what makes you happy and what gives you a sense of belonging, then nothing can stop you. Impossible Is Nothing.
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