Monday 19 February 2018

Decision to retire is never yours - Spence

Spence: Won’t look back in anger. Photo: Sportsfile
Spence: Won’t look back in anger. Photo: Sportsfile

Cathal Dennehy

Sometimes you don't retire from the sport - the sport retires you. At least that's how it was for Sophie Spence, who had the curtain drawn on her international career last November after a phone call from Ireland head coach Adam Griggs.

It arrived on a Wednesday, two days before the 38-woman squad was announced for the upcoming Six Nations, and pretty much there and then Spence knew her Ireland career was over. In the hours after she talked to members of the team, past and present - women she'd put her body on the line for and developed that special kinship with that sport so often cultivates.

"It's something I've been preparing for the past year and a half and this was going to be my last campaign anyway, but sometimes you don't get to choose," says Spence. "I've had a good six years and they've been very special. You can fight and fight for a jersey but the decision is never yours."

For an international career that soared so high - Spence helped Ireland to a Grand Slam in 2013 and was nominated for World Rugby Player of the Year in 2015 - it finished on a dispiriting low. All the more so when Spence reflected on her most recent memory - Ireland's failure to win a single game at the World Cup last year.

"It is painful," she says. "I've been part of the programme that was fourth in the world and to come out of it (when it was) eighth and leave it in the state it was is upsetting."

Head coach Tom Tierney stepped down in the wake of Ireland's World Cup defeat to Wales in August, and in October 33 female internationals sent a letter to Simon Keogh, chief executive of Rugby Players Ireland, stating their concerns with the IRFU's "apparent lack of long-term strategic planning for the Irish women's programme both domestically and internationally".

But three months on and removed from that setup, Spence refuses to look back in anger, at least not today.

"It is upsetting but it's something where you have to ask what needs to be done," she says. "If you continue to be angry you'll lead a negative life and that's not something I want to do."

Instead she's turning her attention to boosting participation among the next generation of Irish players, rolling out her rugby academy camps at clubs across the country. With a degree in sports science and a master's in sports psychology, coupled with six years at the sport's top tier, Spence brings a wealth of knowledge to the job.

"I only started the game at 21 and I was doing a session yesterday with girls who are six and seven, so I think what kind of player they can be 10 years on."

Despite how it ended, Spence wishes her former team-mates nothing but the best in Saturday's Six Nations opener away to France, and looking forward to being part of RTE's commentary team throughout the campaign. "There are a lot of new players, new management, so it's about developing the game"

Though her days in the Irish jersey are done, Spence's boots are not hung up yet as she continues to turn out for her club, Old Belvedere. "Sport is what I know, what I love," she said. "But it's about new ventures now, looking to the future."

Sophie Spence was speaking at the results launch of the Irish Life Health Schools Fitness Challenge, which revealed that six weeks of exercise improved girls' fitness levels by 16 percent

Irish Independent

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