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Spence finds green pastures in coaching after sour end to international career

Having thrived in the engine room with Ireland, Spence is coaching with Penclawdd men’s team in Wales.
Jul 2nd 2019, 10:35 PM 11,245 2

AS A DOUBLE Six Nations champion and a member of the first Ireland sides to beat both England and New Zealand, Sophie Spence regularly broke new ground throughout her career.

Sophie Spence celebrates High point: Spence celebrates during the 2014 World Cup. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

It’s something the former forward is continuing to do even in retirement and this season the 32-year-old will take a big step forward in Welsh rugby as she takes up her first coaching role.

Spence will work as forwards coach at Division 1 West men’s side Penclawdd in the 2019-20 campaign and continue her new business in charge of Y Shed – a coffee shop just up the road in Gowerton.

“My partner’s friend told me Penclawdd were looking for a forwards coach,” Spence said.

“Getting my teeth back into rugby is something I’m really looking forward to. My partner is from Wales and it was my job which was finishing up, so I took the plunge to come over from Ireland.

Sophie Spence Spence on duty with Leinster in 2017. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“I felt really lost when I retired and it was very hard. I’ve been through education and had to work while I was playing rugby, but when that ended it was about finding an identity again. There weren’t many opportunities in Ireland and for me it was a case of trying to find something and make it work.

“In the first six months it was driving me crazy. There was frustration when my career ended, but it’s something I’ve put to bed now and the coffee shop, alongside the rugby, is a completely new focus.”

The daughter of a Nigerian marine engineering student, Spence grew up in South Shields but represented Ireland through her mother Myrtle who came from County Antrim.

She was certainly a huge asset to the team in green as Spence went on to win 37 caps, play at two World Cups, and claim famous wins over England and the Black Ferns.

Sophie Spence Spence in the dressing room before a World Cup fixture in UCD. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The 2017 global showpiece – which saw Ireland finish a disappointing eighth as host nation – was Spence’s last act in international rugby. After that, she fell out of favour.
A new life in south west Wales is suiting Spence and her partner Anwen just fine, but the former admits the end to her Ireland career still rankles.

“It was a disappointing finish and not a good tournament for us. There were a lot of factors and it wasn’t a happy camp which showed in our rugby,” she said.

It’s unfortunate we didn’t do anything to rectify it. At the time I was sad, angry, and frustrated and I vocalised how I felt by trying to speak to people to try to make the women’s game stronger. I wanted to emphasise I wasn’t happy with how things were going. Unfortunately sometimes you’re then out of favour.

“We didn’t have a good run at the World Cup and there were issues in terms of management. The way things were being run was pretty poor. We went into a home World Cup with just a few items of gear. There were a lot of things which went on for a year or more which didn’t make sense in terms of fitness testing and a lack of support.

“As a group we didn’t come together and say that what was happening wasn’t right. I think that was over a fear of not getting picked.

“I don’t regret not being in the squad. I was part of one of the most successful Ireland Women’s squads and no one can take away those memories. There was success, failure, and times when I cried, but I had a really good six years and that’s the way I look at it now. I want to use those experiences. I’ve had good and poor coaches in terms of communication and I’ve learned from that.”

Sophie Spence celebrates at the final whistle Spence during the the Six Nations meeting with France in 2017 Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Ireland’s women side have struggled since Spence’s departure with a host of new players struggling to adapt to international level. In the Six Nations the Celtic countries continue to lag way behind a fully professional England who are only pulling further clear in the female game as it stands.

Ireland finished a disappointing fifth in the 2019 tournament with just one victory.

“Where Ireland women’s rugby is now is not good. There are players there who I’m sure are dithering over whether they stay or go,” Spence said.

“As women’s teams go professional, they are only going to build a bigger gap over amateurs. You see that with England now. It’s concerning because what is the Six Nations going to look like going forwards? Will it be two top teams in England and France and then the rest?

“There are lots of former female players who have a wealth of experience and would love to do something with the Ireland women’s team. I’d love to help out in the future if they wanted ex players in.”

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Alex Bywater

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