Finding Sophie Spence one of coach Doyle’s greatest coups
Dynamic lock has been a huge success for the Ireland women’s rugby team
Lock Sophie Spence never gave up the fight in the torrid IRB Women’s World Cup semi-final defeat to England at Stade Jean Bouin in Paris. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Sophie Spence (left) shows her disappointment after the IRB Women’s World Cup defeat to England at Stade Jean Bouin in Paris. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Finding Sophie Spence. it happened over three years ago.
“In fairness to Goose (Philip Doyle, Ireland’s coach for another 24 hours), ” explains Ireland’s attack coach Greg McWilliams, “he spotted her at an Exiles training camp. It was a great find. Genuine explosive power, ball-carrier, good defender who understands her role within the team.
“She’s well-liked in the squad. A really caring young lady, which is the complete opposite to what she’s like on the pitch.”
Doyle: “I’ll take full credit for finding her! It was down in London. By God, she was incredibly raw but you could see the power. It was her speed with ball in hand. We just had to cap her.”
Spence was born and raised near Newcastle by her Lisburn mother.
South Shields“It was just me and my Mam over in South Shields,” said Spence. “We would go over a few times a year, Christmas, Easter to all my family; my granny and cousins are in Belfast.
“It’s like a home from home. Now I’m in Dublin I can drive up all the time.”
She plays with Old Belvedere and Leinster nowadays, where she just finished up as a development officer in Tallaght and Clondalkin to take up a new role with DCU Rugby (development officer for both men and women and she will also coach).
Before leaving for the World Cup she put together a proposal to create a purely female development officer for Leinster Rugby, “So we can build on this success. Maybe in the future we can have an Under-20s structure.”
Maybe. But back in 2011 there was a problem.
Doyle: “That trial was around August and we couldn’t cap her until the Six Nations so it was a matter of keeping her away from the English.”
The secret was out about this 5ft 9ins player, raw power honed on a solid netball upbringing. This was Jack Charlton recruitment territory.
“I was trying to invent camps to get Sophie over,” he said, “Just to get her involved with the Irish set-up. I know at one stage Graham Smith, the English coach, went up to see her play with the Sharks (the Premiership team in Darlington).”
Smith gave her a maybe. A week later Doyle picked her for his Six Nations squad. Before he picked anyone else.
“I capped her immediately. Locked her away from England. She had a lot to learn but I knew she could learn quickly. She’s been exceptional for us. She’s not a lineout option but her strength and attitude makes for a great ball-carrier, good defender too.”
She paid for her own strength and conditioning coach. There are dozens of stories like this in the women’s squad.
“Goose told me my only problem was fitness so I got a personal trainer.” She had to do a three-hour round trip to York for the weekly sessions. All on her own dime. After a day of teaching.
“I had my netball background but the physicality is completely different. It was the first time I started lifting weights, lost a bit of body fat. It was intense but worth it.”
She needed two hand operations in the past year, from an injury sustained on Sevens duty in 2013. “Marian Earls has got me in good shape again though.”
The rest of her preparation is in the mind.“Off the pitch the girls would slag me for being so emotional. I would be sensitive but on the pitch . . . Like, someone pulled my hair the other day and I turned on her and screamed, ‘What you doing! Watch yourself now!’
“But I would only be aggressive in the right way. You’ve got to channel yourself into making those physical hits or you’ll get knocked back.”
After the New Zealand game she immediately switched back to being Sophie.
“Yeah, I was so pumped for the last scrum but on the full-time whistle I was just crying. Couldn’t even talk. My sensitive side coming out.”
Before a game she sits with Baxter on the bus. Always Ashleigh Baxter. Listens to some music. Then another chat with Baxter again. “She keeps my spirits up. She’s great to have around. She helps me to get into my mental zone.
“To get into a game, “I need to get my hands on the ball. Need to make a tackle. Hit a ruck. Do it all again.”
That’s her role within the team.
Wednesday: Ireland v EnglandSeven minutes into the World Cup semi-final Spence carried up the middle only to be flattened by England prop Rochelle Clark. The crowd and television cameras moved on but Ireland doctor Bridget Collins always keeps her eyes trained on the ruck, until every player rises unharmed. She needn’t have worried. After a slight hesitation, Spence was back up, throwing herself into the next ruck.
“Rocky tackled me with her head. Fair play, she hits hard.”
She got up and did it again. She carried a few moments later. And again.
“I only got my hands on the ball four times. That’s my strength. We defended for most of the game. We couldn’t play how we liked to play.”
It went away from them in uncharacteristic fashion. A 40-7 nightmare that ended, or began, when she was withdrawn on 72 minutes.
Underneath the Stade Jean Bouin, she struggled with some horrid emotions.
“I don’t know if we played as individuals,” she said under the main stand. “I just don’t know. But we are still in the running for third place. We have to park this. Move on. We must focus on how we played in the other three games.”
They all said the same thing. Didn’t put enough pressure on England. Don’t know why. Let them play and were punished severely for it.
“We didn’t perform.”
That night they returned to their base in Marcoussis to allow for “a couple of hours to be sad”. Stayed up until 1.30am to watch the game again.
“We wanted to get the negativity out of the way.”
Thursday was tough: “There was a bit of sadness during the recovery sessions but then we said, ‘Right, let’s move on’.”
Friday was better. “We started to look at the entire journey. People didn’t expect us to get this far. I was a bit stiff but today’s training session woke me up.”
Long goodbyeNow, with a number of the squad ready to call it day, comes the end of a very long goodbye. “Yeah, since the Grand Slam girls have been saying they are retiring after the World Cup. We can’t think about that right now. We have to think about the performance.
“We might get sad after the game or on the plane home or a week later. But now, we’ve got three days left. Let’s get our job done.
“There’s loads of talent about, loads of girls who can fill the jerseys.”
She’s only 27, settled in Dublin, filling the jersey for a while to come. And that proposal of hers is on someone’s desk in Leinster Rugby.