Monday 5 December 2016

Why fans should vote with their feet by backing Spence and Ireland team

Published 16/01/2016 | 02:30

Last August Sophie Spence looked at her own game and made a decision; she wasn't
content with just being a lifter. She also wanted to be a jumper in the lineout (SPORTSFILE)
Last August Sophie Spence looked at her own game and made a decision; she wasn't content with just being a lifter. She also wanted to be a jumper in the lineout (SPORTSFILE)

Over the next month or so we will have to brace ourselves for wall-to-wall coverage of politicians posing for photo-ops with the misplaced belief that they've got the draw of a Conor McGregor with their outrageous promises.

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The general election hasn't even been called but the hoopla, chest-pumping, posturing and paddy-whackery that goes on around electioneering is a wearisome sideshow.

And then there is the Ireland women's rugby squad. You won't see them shout into a 1960s megaphone about what they promise to deliver simply because their past achievements can also do the talking for them.

In three weeks, they will start the defence of the Six Nations against Wales. And even though they are quietly going about their training and preparation, Irish women's rugby will still have to fight to get your attention and support when the Championship begins.

Donnybrook is their new home, which should make it accessible for more people to attend their games. They don't have a manifesto but you need to know two of their most valuable selling points going into next month's Six Nations:

1. They have one of the best players in the world

Last August Sophie Spence looked at her own game and made a decision; she wasn't content with just being a lifter. She also wanted to be a jumper in the lineout.

It was also last August when Spence was nominated for World Rugby Women's Player of the Year and when she won the Irish Rugby Writers' Women's Player of the Year award after her outstanding performances in helping Ireland win the Six Nations in March. But she still wanted to improve her game.

When I spoke to Ireland captain Niamh Briggs about Spence this week she admitted wondering if all the awards could affect Spence's drive in any way for the coming season.

"When you see people get to the pinnacle you hope they're not going to rest on that," Briggs said. "But she's probably better than she was last year."

Briggs confirmed what I had already learned about Spence: she is always looking to get better.

Before every game Spence has three keys targets that she wants to improve on. She doesn't feel the need to write those aims down on the strapping around her wrist like other players. It's all in her head.

She knows she's a good ball-carrier and strong at breaking the gain-line but this season she also wants to learn how to become a lineout jumper.

"I just want to add another string to my bow and not just develop for myself but be another option for the squad," Spence says.

There's something about Spence. When Briggs brings up what Spence gave up to play for Ireland you understand she's no ordinary player. She was born and raised near Newcastle in England (her mother is from Lisburn, Co Antrim).

When former Ireland head coach Philip Doyle saw her play at an Exiles training camp in London, she soon made a commitment to Irish rugby.

"After being capped in 2012 and travelling back and forth (from the UK) for six months of the year for 15s and Sevens in both 2012 and 2013, I decided to leave my teaching job and commit to coming over to Dublin to prepare for the 2014 World Cup," she says.

"In 2011 just before I was capped, England started paying attention. But it was never of interest to me. I was training to be a member of the Irish squad."

(Note to Jack Grealish: That's how you commit to a country.)

As well as being an abrasive player on the pitch, Spence seems to have a calmness and self-awareness off it. She has never been to see a sports psychologist before a game mainly because she has a Masters in Sports Psychology herself and is able to self-assess herself as a rugby player.

"I guess knowing as a player how to try and overcome any psychological issues in your game whether it be anxiety, motivation etc is always something good," she says.

Teams will undoubtedly try to target Spence this season. Watch them try.

2.They will be the best prepared Ireland women's squad going into a Six Nations

'Best prepared squad ever' may be dirty words in Irish rugby after that proclamation was used to describe the men's team going to the 2007 World Cup.

But I'm not descending into hyperbole here by describing this Irish women's squad as the best prepared ever going into a Six Nations. They will have spent more camps together as a squad than any other Irish women's squad (World Cup preparation aside).

Since August and including this weekend, they will have met nine weekends. Okay, it may not sound like a lot. But this year they had their first training camp back in August, whereas usually they don't meet until December. This is progress.

The women's squad have moved all their training sessions to DCU, where they have access to a high performance gym and where they train on an artificial pitch, which is the kind of surface they will play on at Donnybrook.

And because there is now an integration of the XV and Sevens women's programmes, the players have more support staff to work with like physios, strength and conditioning coaches, and a nutritionist. This is progress

As well as working with the players at the weekends, Ireland head coach Tom Tierney also provides regional weekly skills sessions to each of the provinces. Each player has their own individual player development programme set by the coaches. This is progress.

Also, Ireland played an international in November for the first time ever, when they faced England two months ago.

"We've had more camps heading up to a Six Nations then we've ever but there have been lots of changes including new players and game strategies," Spence explains.

"You can always do with more time to prepare but hopefully going into the first match we've got all of the groundwork done and we can focus on performing."

You see, no false promises or folk talking themselves up here. If you want to give support that will be completely appreciated this spring, then vote with your feet at Donnybrook.

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