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'You don't expect that call. I just said 'thank you' as it's very difficult to process it on the phone'

A month has passed since Sophie Spence’s international retirement was fast-tracked by a phone call from new Ireland head coach Adam Griggs. She has regrets over the way it ended, but is now looking to move on and focus on the next chapter.

Updated at 08.26

A PHONE CALL, and that was it.

Game over.

Unexpected, yet not a total surprise.

Sophie Spence needed time and space to digest what had just happened, and when it did eventually sink in, the reality of the situation proved difficult to understand.

Sophie Spence dejected Spence's last game in an Ireland jersey was the World Cup defeat to Australia. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

After six years in an Ireland jersey, after exhilarating highs, after everything she had contributed to those seismic, indelible, days, that was it. She was no longer deemed good enough, or fit enough, or worthy enough, to be in the international squad.

“I suppose you never know what’s going to happen really, do you?” Spence says, philosophically.

Over the last four weeks, she’s brought herself to accept it. Time can act as a healer, and a Christmas spent with family and friends helped take her mind off that short, but fateful, call from the recently-appointed Ireland head coach Adam Griggs.

Spence is trying to move on, trying to start afresh with her career outside of rugby. But it’s not easy, and the forthcoming Six Nations will further inflame the raw emotions attached with her abrupt, and forced, retirement.

No player wants their career to end that way. To be told you’re no longer needed, particularly after the rich service you have given and the unequivocal worth you can still bring to a dressing room. You want to go out on your own terms, with no regrets.

“I got back after being injured after the World Cup — it took me three months to get back — and then I played two inter-pro matches, including the final against Munster,” Spence explains.

“I then received the call the following week that I wouldn’t be involved in the Six Nations squad. He [Griggs] said it was due to fitness and that I was to go and play club rugby.

“Different coaches will select different players for different reasons and that might be part of their plan going forward in the future, I’m not entirely sure, but receiving a call like that is going to be difficult for any player.”

What made it harder for Spence to comprehend was that Griggs — having been Leinster coach for the last number of seasons — knows her game inside out. He knows what she brings to the environment, and how a player of her calibre and experience can aid the current transition the national team are preparing to go through.

But that obviously counted for little. The door had been shut.

“I suppose a call like that, it added up to how my journey was going to end. A call like that is difficult, I just said ‘thank you’ at the end as it’s very difficult to process when you’re on the phone.

“It took a bit of time to sink in really and I had to talk to a few people to, I suppose, express my thoughts and feelings. Just understand it really, but I didn’t question it as when you’re on this phone call I suppose you don’t really think as I wasn’t expecting it. That’s just how it was.”

Having already decided in her head that this Six Nations would be her last, and the conclusion of the championship would mark the end of her time in a green jersey, Spence had planned to bow out on a high. Or at least with one final opportunity to give it her all.

Schools Fitness Spence was at Croke Park yesterday for the results announcement of the Irish Life School's Fitness Challenge. Source: Jason Clarke

At just 30, and having come to rugby late, there was still, she says, plenty left to give and even if her role in the squad was to come off the bench in games, or simply, impart knowledge and wisdom on the squad’s younger players, she was happy to do so.

But it wasn’t to be and as soon as she put down the phone last December, Spence knew her race was run. Once the IRFU announced the squad the week before Christmas, a statement from the second row’s management company quickly followed.

In regretfully confirming her international retirement, Spence said she hoped to play in one final Six Nations but, speaking yesterday, she insists at no point had she discussed her future plans with Griggs or IRFU management — so that could not have influenced their decision to leave her out.

“I only had discussions about retiring with past players and family,” she says. “I’m not entirely sure what the coach’s decisions are or why they made them, and I can’t speak for them, but for myself it was a decision after that, once I got the call, I knew that was it.

“I don’t think any player can think they’re always going to be involved or that they always deserve a jersey. That’s never what it’s about, you need to be training and performing to the highest level to compete for a jersey and it’s no one’s right to have one. And that’s never been the way, but I absolutely do feel I had something to give.

“I did find it difficult coming back from the World Cup and from injury, my head wasn’t 100% but I do think I could have contributed in some way. I certainly wouldn’t have got to where I am now without the likes of Lynne Cantwell and Fi Coughlan helping me and that was something that helped contribute to the success. That would have been a role I would have liked to play.

“Instead, I announced my retirement the week after [the call] when the squad was announced. I sent a thank you email to Anthony [Eddy, IRFU director of women's rugby] and the rest of the management team to thank them for the support during my time in Irish rugby.”

A loyal servant gone like that.

Since making her international debut in 2012, Spence’s game progressed at a rapid rate of knots and the powerful, hard-carrying and talismanic second row became one of the key cogs in the Irish wheel.

The forward was an integral member of Ireland’s most successful team, helping Philip Doyle’s side to a first Grand Slam in 2013 and then another title in 2015. In-between, there was the small matter of that historic, and groundbreaking, win over New Zealand at the World Cup. And Spence was an ever-present through it all.

Her individual performances were acknowledged in 2015 when she was nominated for World Rugby player of the year and the RTÉ sportsperson of the year. All things considered, we’re not talking about a bit-part player being dispensed here.

“I was putting my hand up to be part of this squad and then not to be selected, retirement didn’t come on my terms,” Spence adds. “It wasn’t my decision and that’s the regret.

Sophie Spence celebrates at the final whistle Spence became a key member of the Ireland squad after her debut in 2012. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“I did fall out of love with rugby because when you’re not selected and taken out of the squad, it’s very difficult to try and continue to train at that level for another year. I knew I couldn’t do that. There was no point waiting around, the writing was on the wall after the call.

“But when I sat down with family and friends over Christmas, you get to reflect. The Grand Slam, to make history and be part of a special team.

“They are massive experiences and massive honours to share with a special group. They’re the moments I’ll take away and talk about.”

The focus now revolves around her ever-growing rugby academy and making the sport more accessible for girls around the country, while also promoting and advocating a healthy lifestyle, which very much ties into her work with the Irish Life School’s Fitness Challenge.

As one door closes, another one opens.

Spence is clearly passionate about coaching, nurturing and developing young talent — whether it’s through rugby or any form of physical exercise — and while her own time in green has come to an end, the hope is that she will continue to be a role model for younger generations.

To inspire and influence, and even if Griggs and the IRFU have deemed her surplus to requirements in the dressing room, Spence’s worth is still evident in the work she’s doing in clubs right around the country.

“For me now, it’s about sitting down and putting a plan in place for the future,” she says.

“If I can help develop more players and be a support in the pathways I would love that.”

Not deterred or downbeat about what has happened, rugby still has a big part to play in Spence’s life.

She missed Old Belvedere’s AIL win over Tullamore on Sunday, but hopes to be back on the field this coming weekend and will be part of the RTÉ commentary team for Ireland’s Six Nations games at Donnybrook.

“It’s going to be different,” she smiles.

“It’ll be completely different.”

But that’s just the way it is for Spence now.

“It’s how you deal with it,” she adds. “And how you move on from it and show your strength in what you do next.”

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