In Part Three of a new series running across the next two weeks, Des Berry chats to Irish people around the world involved in rugby
When the roar of the crowd fades away, you are left with the rest of your life to navigate.
It is a problem exacerbated when you feel there is more left in the green tank.
Sophie Spence was a central figure in Ireland’s golden generation of girls, winning the 2013 Grand Slam and the 2014 Six Nations.
The powerhouse lock was right at the heart of the battle in Ireland’s first defeats of England in 2013 and New Zealand at the 2014 World Cup.
“It’s different. It’s very different,” Spence said about the transition into life after playing rugby. “I suppose, it probably took me over a year to find myself. I remember having chats with Ailis (Egan) and Nora (Stapleton) and telling them how I was lost.
“You are almost institutionalised, to a point, because you know what time you are going to eat and train. I had to create new routines.”
The end of Spence’s career was a consequence of the debris left from the 2017 World Cup, Ireland’s disastrous hosting undermined by a rift between management and players.
Something had to change. Unfortunately, Spence’s belief in what had to happen was not shared by the IRFU.
“It was post-World Cup, heading into the focus on the 2018 Six Nations,” she stated. “I am open about talking about it now because that’s how everyone learns and you would want to change things.
“There were a lot of players, who were retiring like Ailis (Egan), Nora (Stapleton) and I wasn’t sure whether I was going to give it one or two more seasons. But, I wanted to see change before I made a commitment to play on. I was coming from a place where we knew things weren’t right in camp for a couple of seasons.”
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The much-publicised intention to make the head coach role a part-time commitment was just one of the problems, along with what Spence interpreted as a de-escalation of support.
“I remember being sat in a meeting at one of the camps, being told that nutritional support was being reduced to the people who need it. That was a very strange announcement in front of the squad,” she recalled.
“To be a high-performance squad, you need as much support as possible as long as the players are adhering to everything expected from them. It has to work both ways.
“I was meeting people from different sports in an effort to find out how they did things, how they resolved issues.
“And that was it for me. I wasn’t selected for the Six Nations. It was a sad way to end my time as an Irish international.”
The motivation to look outside the bubble came from a good place and the search for a job was a frustrating exercise.
“Jobs in sport, in any country, are difficult to find. There was nothing more coming about for me, unfortunately. I looked for something. But there wasn’t anything.”
When those avenues were walked and closed off, Spence made the decision to put her relationship first, moving to Wales to be with long-time girlfriend Anwen Harry, now her wife.
The two women had met at Teesside University and maintained an on-off relationship for a decade as Spence chased her dreams to Ireland. Unsurprisingly, she walked into an environment that celebrated the differences.
“I suppose, rugby is a community. It is about respect for all. It is open for all. Within that, everyone has to feel comfortable about who they are,” she said.
“The friends I have from the game, you would never put us together. We are a complete bunch of misfits. That is what I love about sport. Me and Anwen met when we were at university through rugby. I had never played and she loved it.
“We were together for three and a half years and we were apart when I was in Dublin. We got back together in 2016.”
Suddenly, the focus was on change, not of Ireland’s rugby culture at the highest level, but of life direction.
It was then the generosity of coffee king Colin Harmon, of 3fe Coffee, became a guiding light.
Spence had always been interested in opening a cafe and Harmon had taken time to offer his expertise and even free coffee to Ireland’s squad during the 2017 World Cup.
It led to a process of researching, designing and rebuilding, eventually opening a cafe ‘Y Shed’ in Gowerton, outside Swansea, in late 2018.
In her time, Spence had built quite the coaching CV from roles with Leinster, leading the establishment of the Leinster School of Excellence for Girls in 2014 and heading up the rugby department in DCU for three years as well as setting up Spence Rugby Academy for girls at the grass-roots level for three years.
The start of a new business was time-consuming. But the pull of rugby was strong. There was still that passion to get involved and Anwen alerted her to an opening early last year for a new men’s coach at local club Penclawdd, playing in Division 1 West.
“It was funny because they had never had a woman coach before. It was a new thing for them and me,” she said.
“At the interview, I was sitting with eight men around me, being asked general coaching questions, you know, ‘how would you set-up a session? Would you be involved in the Youths? How would I respond to the men not being used to a female coach?’
“I laughed because it was something I knew was going to come up. I just said, ‘it doesn’t matter the gender, you earn the respect from player-to-coach and vice versa’.”
The first-team responsibilities are split down the line between Spence and backs boss Ben Hall.
Before the coronavirus set in, Penclawdd, promoted last season, were seventh in the 12-club division with the aim of finishing in fifth.
The rugby has been set aside as Spence catches up on the paperwork at ‘Y Shed’. There has also been time to take stock on where she is and where she would like to be.
“I want to develop as a coach in the men’s game. At the minute, I’m happy learning and developing in the men’s game. It is a different beast.”
She has not got “far enough in her thoughts” to contemplate becoming the first woman to coach Ireland.
It will take something special to tempt her away as Anwen is a psychologist for the NHS and ‘Y Shed’ also needs all her care.
Spence has already benefited from ex-Dragons coach Bernard Jackman’s generosity but has yet to run into Ospreys head coach Mike Ruddock.
“I haven’t met Mike. I would definitely have a coffee with him.”
She knows the perfect place.