Game-changer with clear vision for rugby's future
Sophie Spence is firm in her belief that women's rugby should be developed better, says Brendan Fanning
First impressions of Sophie Spence. She is posing for photos with kids when we arrive. Big girl with a big smile, immediately she strikes you as warm and engaging. The only hiccup is the handshake. It's, well, polite. And this is a second row with enough edge to cut through a few tight corners. Something not quite right about that.
Our prototype grunt would be a cross between Paul O'Connell and Nathan Hines: good in the air, a preparedness to work through pain, and that priceless combination of a hard attitude with soft hands. Spence might not bring to mind images of John Eales at his peak but she ticks a lot of the right boxes, and did so throughout Ireland's World Cup campaign in France this month.
So why the nice handshake? It might have something to so with the year she endured en route to Paris.
In the Hong Kong Sevens last season she made a grab at the jersey of an escaping opponent and suffered a tendon injury in her right hand. It would turn into a nightmare which leaves her unable, still, to make a decent fist of things. Three operations later, and for some reason suddenly she was in a heap with her back - an issue that would require a steroid intervention to sort out barely in time for the World Cup.
"I got over the pain," she says. "It was like I'm in agony but I'm just getting through this. Then I finally got assessed and was told the nerves had switched off in my back. 'Oh, I was wondering why I was in such pain.' My body didn't like what had happened to my hand. It was such unfortunate timing.
"When I found out, I rang Goose (Philip Doyle, the coach) sobbing and Fi (Coghlan, the captain). I was like: 'Oh my God I'm missing the World Cup, what a year I've had!' And they were: 'You'll be going, you're fine, you're fine.' Luckily the fitness I'd done in those five weeks pre-season stayed with us. I was tipping away doing a bit on the bike but for three weeks I did nothing because of my back. I was basically told if I'm standing I need to be sitting, and if I'm sitting I need to be lying down. For three weeks.
"I was so upset because I wanted to be the best rugby player I've ever been, right now in this tournament. And it wasn't how I wanted to be, and the preparation I wanted to have. Oh God, I cried for a couple of days. And I still had to go to the gym and be at sessions to see what was going on. I was in camp and it was so frustrating. I'm sitting there and I want to be learning the moves. Even though I could see it I'm someone who needs to do it. I needed to be able to run a line. My first session back in I had a tight play and I think I knocked on three balls. I was like: 'This isn't me, what's going on?' That's my thing. I carry ball. I don't drop balls!"
It takes real mental strength to park that sort of preamble and move on to the big show like you're ready for opening night. Which is exactly what she did. Spence was so convincing that it's hard to believe less than seven years have passed since her first rugby session in college in Newcastle, where she grew up. That's when this sports science graduate had been given the sophisticated intro to the game: run forward; pass back.
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Myrtle Spence left Lisburn in her early 20s to work in England's north east. It was there she met a young Nigerian studying marine engineering. It wasn't a long relationship, but it did produce a daughter with a determined streak and a flair for sport. Sophie reckons she has seen her father only a few times in her life. Is that an issue for her?
"Eh, yeah," she says. "It did bother me when I was younger. For now, for me, I am the person I am because of my mam. That's my lifestyle and I'm happy with that. My mam's my best friend."
You can imagine a mother's pride then when her daughter is part of a minority sport that this month has commanded majority interest. It was when it was all going wrong, in that final match, that you saw the frustration come through in Spence's game, when she nearly put one of the French girls into the front row of the stand. Rugby can accommodate moments like that. It can also celebrate the good times though. And from start to finish the win over New Zealand was epic stuff.
"Words can't describe what it was like," she says. "It was so bizarre because everyone (in the camp) knew we were doing it. 'This is happening - we're going to beat the Kiwis.' Everything from Greg (McWilliams, assistant coach) - the belief was there. And Jesus Christ it was tough, but it was a different tough. It was like moreso endurance-wise whereas the USA game was a battle in the sense that the forwards were used to bash a lot. I know for myself I didn't get my hands on the ball that much but when I did it was like a 'suicide' because they were big girls and they hit you hard. You can't even explain the experience. When Fi turned around (at the start) and went: 'Let's go fucking mental it was, yeah, let's!' Let's bring it to them. It was like: 'This is happening.' Afterwards everyone was having little fits of laughter. 'We did it!'"
And it drained them?
"I'd say so, yes. And I think mentally as well. It's everything. Like how many meetings you'd have: you're coming together for primers; you're coming together for mobility. Just little things. If I ever had any free time I'd be lying on my bed or sleeping. And I love to sleep. Fi's always taking the mick out of me, 'Oh did I wake you from your nap?', but you actually had to. The Kiwi number eight said to me after the campaign: 'That was your final, yis played as if that was it.' I don't think it was a disrespectful thing, but we didn't perform against England. Maybe that was everything we had at that point - maybe we needed a week's rest in between."
Coming home from an adventure like that has its good and bad sides. From the moment they arrived at the airport they were bowled over by the welcome. And in the street now there are people who come up to players to congratulate them on having broken new ground. Unheard of here in the women's game.
On the flip side is what happens next. Last week Spence started her new job as rugby development officer in DCU, after a year with Leinster in community development work. While with Leinster she put together a proposal to develop the game among girls in Ireland. They said the budgets were done, and bounced it up to the IRFU for funding. It punctured on impact.
That there is sufficient raw talent seems obvious, for Spence also initiated a School of Excellence in May which attracted over 90 girls from 13-18. "It was a massive project that went fantastically well with the help of Mas (Reilly), Fi, Nora (Staunton), and Jenny (Murphy) came down as well. They couldn't believe the talent. The amount of girls who should be wearing the Irish jersey in a few years' time. The amount of girls who should be involved . . ."
She had hoped that might reignite the interest of the IRFU. That it didn't is hardly a surprise, for when we approached the union 10 days ago on the prospect of bidding for the next Women's World Cup we got a one-liner back. Eh, no thanks.
"There's got to be something in place to get it going," she says. "Otherwise is the 15s game here going to die?"
No, it will just toddle along. The final impression of Sophie Spence is not what you would expect of someone having just come home in triumph. Delighted to be starting a new job, certainly - but unsure about what happens next. As a latecomer to the game, she could see how hard it was playing against the early birds of England, most of whom started as minis. And that should change.
"That's the thing. I'm so jealous of what could be achieved here now - that's why I put forward the Girls' Development Proposal. The talent here is unreal."
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