For the love and the honour of the green jersey
‘I didn’t do the sport for money,’ says recently retired Ireland Grand Slam winner and Bank of Ireland Community Brand Ambassador Sophie Spence of her rugby career, ‘because we weren’t getting paid, I did it for the love and the honour of pulling on the green jersey.’
Sophie was born and raised in England but her mother’s side of the family is from Belfast. ‘When my Mam was in her twenties,’ Sophie explains, ‘she moved over to South Shields (5 miles from Newcastle-upon-Tyne) and settled down so I was brought up there.’ But Sophie didn’t play rugby when she was growing up.
‘Netball was the sport I played at school and at county level. When I went on to college to do my A levels, I continued to play it but I guess when you’re that age you’re interested in other things as well and can get distracted,’ she admits.
The question that changed her life
She might have occasionally been distracted in her teenage years but her interest in sport, her athletic ability and the hand-eye coordination she had built up playing netball did not go to waste. When Sophie was at the Teeside University Fresher’s Fair, just about to start her Master’s degree, one of her friends asked her a question that seemed inconsequential at the time but, in hindsight, changed her life – ‘do you want to try a different sport?’ When Sophie said yes, her friend said, ‘right, we’re going to do rugby!’ and she was signed up.
‘run forward, pass backwards’
‘I had no clue,’ she says. ‘I hadn’t watched rugby, I’d never held a rugby ball in my hands, I didn’t even have a clue what the Six Nations was!’ Sophie went to her first rugby training session a few days later where her coach’s instructions were clear and simple, ‘run forward, pass backwards, that’s all you need to know for now.’ When she went to score a try ‘I slammed it down like they do in American Football. I didn’t know anything about the rules whatsoever.’
‘three or four of us jumped in the car one day…’
She played rugby at university for two years, played at Darlington Rugby club for a season and then went to Darlington Mowden Park (DMP) Sharks the Women’s Premier Rugby club. Another chance conversation, this time with a team-mate, led to her going to an Exiles training session.
‘Three or four of us jumped in the car one day with her Dad and travelled from Newcastle to London.’ After the training session ‘Goose’, Philip Doyle, the Irish women’s coach at the time spoke to Sophie saying, ‘look, you’re very raw but you’re a great ball carrier I’d like you to work on your fitness and a couple of other things.’
Sending match footage to ‘Goose’
She took his advice and got a personal trainer. ‘In 2 months,’ she says, ‘the change in my physique and my strength was unbelievable.’ Then Sophie adds, with emphasis, ‘but this was following the plan to a ‘t’, mind!’ After every match she played, Sophie sent video footage of the match from England over to Goose in Ireland and waited to hear what he thought of her performance.
‘I’d get a phone call and I could be on the phone to him for an hour and a half. He was great at giving me ‘work ons’ for the next fixture.’ Eventually, Goose was so impressed by brought Sophie that he brought her into the Ireland squad. ‘I told my Mam and she told the family and then I think it got onto social media and she had to take it down!’
Forced to choose sport over career
She made the decision to move over to Ireland in 2013 after the Grand Slam victory to give her the chance to train with the squad in the lead up to the World Cup in 2014. But leaving England also meant leaving her teaching job to dedicate herself to an amateur sport that she knew she would not be able to play at the highest level indefinitely. ‘It was a big leap to hand in my notice early in my career,’ she says, of that decision.
The bond between the players
The period, 2012 to 2014, just after she got called into the squad, she says, probably holds the greatest memories she will take with her from her time playing rugby. ‘I was brought in and I was like a sponge absorbing everything and wanting more.’
She was in the Ireland side that won the Grand Slam in 2013 and in the squad that got to the semi-final of the 2014 World Cup and was nominated for World Rugby Women’s Player of the Year in 2015 but says, ‘nobody can take away the medals, but it’s the bond between us and the culture I was brought into that was so important.’
‘Will this be my last match?’
In January of this year, after being omitted from the Ireland squad for the 6 Nations 2018, Sophie decided to retire. ‘It was in my head for maybe the last 18 months because I was getting older and for me, because it is an amateur sport, career has to come first. She tells me that she was wondering as she was about to play Wales in the 2017 World Cup ‘will this be my last match?’ Now she says she’s thinking ‘what’s next for Sophie Spence not Sophie Spence the rugby player?’
‘I want to stay in the sport’
Looking back at her time as a rugby player, she says she values ‘the leadership I’ve gained and the learning I’ve had from all the people I’ve met. The good times you really cherish and during the bad times you think ‘what can I learn from this?’ I want to take that and put that into what I want to next.
When I was teaching I never would have thought that I’d go into rugby but after the experience I’ve gained and the people I’ve met I want to stay in the sport.’
Women used to ‘sleep on people’s floors so they could attend training camps’
I ask her if she thinks the profile of women in sport has improved. ‘RTE televised the first women’s rugby game during the 2013 6 Nations,’ she says. ‘We played on a terrible pitch in terrible conditions in Italy. At the beginning, women who played rugby internationally in Ireland were making sandwiches for their own lunches and sleeping on people’s floors just so they could attend training camps. Now the squad is staying in hotels together.’
Providing role models for young girls
‘You look at the Women’s All-Ireland Football Final Dublin,’ she says, ‘between Dublin and Mayo last September and the attendance was over 46,000 that was the world’s highest attendance for women’s sport in 2017 and the atmosphere was fantastic.
It’s all about the young girls at the grass roots seeing that and saying ‘I want to be there one day’ and having the role models to inspire them.’
‘We still have massive steps to take’
There has been a massive improvement, she believes, ‘but for where we want to be we still have massive steps to take.’ To get investment she thinks women’s sport needs investment but to get investments requires great performances. It’s a vicious circle which makes the successes of Irish women in sport even more valuable.
At the end of the interview, Sophie who works with young people in her role as a Community Brand Ambassador for Bank of Ireland and recently launched the Spence Rugby Academy starts to think about what her legacy might be for young girls considering sport.
We have to break down barriers
‘Without realising I was doing it, I hope that might have inspired future players and future leaders to maybe break down barriers. We have to break down barriers to see success happen. Without someone paving the way forward we are not going to make the steps we need to take.’
Find out more
The Bank of Ireland Leinster Rugby Camps provide boys and girls, aged 6-12 years old, with a fun-filled week of rugby during the summer holidays. Click here to book a place on one of the Camps at a rugby club near you.