Over the past decade Sene Naoupu’s playing career has been spurred on by a single question: how can she contribute to Irish rugby and ensure its ongoing success?

“That philosophy of service and contribution drives me, on and off the pitch,” Naoupu told World Rugby.

It is an attitude that has yielded results, with the Women’s Six Nations 2015 title secured in her first year as a test player and subsequent appearances at Rugby World Cup 2017 and on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series.

But, away from the pitch, Naoupu has also applied her mantra to the wider sporting landscape.

Behind the scenes, she’s led sport strategies for national governing bodies — both inside and outside rugby — Olympic federations and broadcasters. A champion of equal opportunity in sport and business, she also works with global brands to promote the visibility of women.

Naoupu has also worked closely with World Rugby and International Rugby Players since 2017, and at the end of last year was appointed to the governing body’s Women’s Advisory Committee.

It was the opportunity to develop and deliver “key initiatives, structures and standardised frameworks to support the player journey for life” that convinced Naoupu to take on the role of Head of Strategic Projects and Research at International Rugby Players last month.

“It’s not about the role, it’s about the goal, and collaborating with stakeholders on innovative ways to keep the game growing through the player-centric lens,” Naoupu, who will undertake doctorate research at Dublin City University aligned to her IRP remit, said. 

“It's a testament to Omar [Hassanein] and the team, and the strengthened relationship with World Rugby, to be in a position to provide support for players globally. That collaboration is a catalyst to growing the game overall and creating the win-win for everyone involved.

“I’m working across all aspects of the men’s and women’s game, on a number of key global projects and strategies. Learning and building on the brilliant work already being done across our player associations and will continue working closely with World Rugby, unions and stakeholders together, to achieve some game-changer strategic objectives.”

Monaco meeting

Naoupu’s first involvement with International Rugby Players came in November, 2017. A year later — on the same weekend that she captained Ireland for the first time, in the absence of Ciara Griffin, against England — she flew to Monaco as a representative of the organisation.

Alongside Rachael Burford, who had been an opponent on the Twickenham turf the previous evening, Naoupu presented to World Rugby on the future of the women’s game, and helped catalyse the conversations that have since led to a new global calendar and the introduction of WXV.

“I finished a masters thesis from UCD, on emergent models in the development and delivery of women’s rugby,” Naoupu said. 

“The research outputs helped frame the presentation and I was extremely thankful to Omar and the team for the opportunity to present this piece of work with Rachael on behalf of players worldwide. 

“Governance, change management and brand equity were key themes, with interesting aspects into phases of standardising, specialising and centralising high performance pathways to support the game across all levels.”

Burford and Naoupu have since become good friends off the pitch and will work closely together at International Rugby Players, for whom the former is now Head of Women’s Rugby.

“I’ve admired Rachael Burford for a very long time as one of the world's best number 12s,” Naoupu said. 

“We’ve formed a strong collaboration with [World Rugby’s General Manager Women’s Rugby] Katie Sadleir over the years and it’s evident in our support of the strategy delivery and player engagement. 

“It’s been important to be involved in global competition structures on behalf of International Rugby Players as well as with Ali Hughes.

“Off the pitch, Rachael works tirelessly to help drive the women’s game. She became a mentor as I was becoming more involved in player representation. Very much like Katie, who has been instrumental in [taking] the global women’s game to another level.”

Naoupu added: “There've been some milestones we've been able to support and achieve together as a collaborative, but there’s a lot of work to do across that space to sustain the fastest growth area in the game for generations to come.”

‘Beyond special’

Deputising for Griffin and leading her team-mates out at Twickenham in 2018 remains a career highlight for Naoupu as it was reward for the hard work and dedication that she had put in after relocating to Ireland in 2009.

“When I moved to Ireland it was about immersing into the community in a new culture where, you know, I fell in love with the place and its people and everything about it,” she said. 

“I’d been working hard across the talent ID programmes, sevens first and the 15s game, just keeping my head down, working hard and learning off everyone.

“It’s been a privilege to vice-captain Ireland for the last few years, and experience the responsibility of stepping in for Ciara Griffin on one occasion, against England. 

“That’s beyond special in its own way. Another highlight was winning the 2015 Six Nations as a debutant. Not just for the medal, but the journey and legacy it represented from the players that gave us that moment.

“I got to play with Irish heroes who inspired me to make a comeback to 15s in the first place, when they won the 2013 Grand Slam and beat the Black Ferns (at Rugby World Cup 2014).”

Naoupu believes that Ireland “have what it takes to win championships and compete with the best on the world stage… it’s part of why I’m still playing”.

Ireland took a step towards a potential Women’s Six Nations 2021 final last Saturday when they beat Wales 45-0 at Cardiff Arms Park. Naoupu scored one of her side’s seven tries.

“We’re fortunate to have world-class facilities, quality coaching and expert medical care available to us,” she said. “But, the measure of all that isn’t just one strong performance away to Wales. 

“We need to back it up, and execute better against France this weekend.”

Ireland will host France in Dublin on Saturday, with a place in the Women’s Six Nations decider against England up for grabs.

Naoupu is grateful to many for the chance to be on the Energia Park pitch in such a big match. Last February, a routine scan after defeat to England unearthed a tumour in her neck.

The pandemic delayed an operation, which took place in July, but Naoupu has been able to make a full recovery and returned to the rugby pitch against Italy in October.

“I was very thankful to have excellent medical staff internally with Irish Rugby and externally at Santry Clinic and St. Vincent's Hospital in Dublin, who were brilliant,” she said.

“It refreshed my outlook on things. But I've been through a few life experiences that changed my perspective a long time ago — you only live once so you’ve gotta be fearless as a dream-maker.

“I’m thankful for my team-mates and management, friends, community and of course my family, who were just phenomenal throughout that time. It’s in those moments you appreciate that it’s more than a game. Community at its finest.”

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