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'People coming up to you in the street is nice reward for all the hard work'

Sophie Spence is enjoying the limelight but remains focused on bringing women’s rugby to a new level.

Spence helped launch the Dublin 7s festival at Donnybrook.
Spence helped launch the Dublin 7s festival at Donnybrook.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

AS THE DUST settles on the Six Nations campaign, this time of year would ordinarily be a period of reflection for Ireland’s women.

The team, and management, would be left to mull over the last five games in the knowledge they won’t get the chance to do it all again for another 12 months.

But Tom Tierney’s side are no longer restricted to just a handful of fixtures and this Autumn will welcome three of the world’s top nations to Dublin.

After playing their first ever Autumn International last year, Ireland will play New Zealand, England and Canada at UCD’s Belfield Bowl in a historic November series.

It’s a reflection of the team’s progression and the IRFU’s commitment to developing the women’s game that such high-profile sides have accepted the invite to come here.

Sophie Spence has played an integral role in the team’s successes and believes these opportunities are invaluable in showcasing the sport to a wider audience.

“The crowd that were at our Six Nations games and the young girls that were among them could be in this green jersey down the line,” she told The42.

“It’s important we act like role models and show the public the hard work and dedication we put in and that rugby is a game for all.

Sophie Spence on the attack Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“These games and big occasions show young girls that there is an opportunity for them to do this and there is a pathway for them there.”

29-year-old Spence has been central to Irish women’s rugby, both on the pitch and off it, in recent years and was last year nominated for the IRB Women’s Player of the Year award.

As a rugby development officer in Dublin, the English-born lock has almost become the poster girl for Irish rugby.

“It’s nice when people come up to you in the street and recognise you,” she admitted.

“When someone comes over and says hello it is a nice reward or recognition for all the hard work and dedication we put in.

“Obviously what happens on the pitch is most important but it does give you more determination to get the results and achieve success when people speak to you.”

Spence and the team received plenty of support during the recent Six Nations campaign with the women’s home games staged at Donnybrook for the first time.

Healthy crowds turned out to watch Ireland defeat Wales, Italy and Scotland and despite missing out on back-to-back championship titles, Spence believes it was an encouraging campaign.

“I think it was successful in terms of us developing players, we had about 14 new caps since the November test and that’s something that’s going to stand to us going into a World Cup next year, especially when it’s at home,” she explained.

“We do still have a long way to develop but I think girls have had really valuable game time.

“Donnybrook has been ideal and there’s nothing better to play on a 4G pitch as it just creates such a fast game and I think the crowd and the support we’ve had has been fantastic.

“Everyone getting behind you is something really important because we want people to understand what Irish women’s rugby is about and hopefully that’s happening more and more.”

Sophie Spence, Ian Madigan and Tom Daly Spence alongside Ian Madigan and Tom Daly. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

After a string of imposing performances in 2015, Spence was shortlisted for the IRB’s top individual award and although she missed out on the prize, being recognised was an achievement in itself.

“It’s a funny one,” Spence said when asked does it put more pressure on her shoulders. “During the tournament I found it more difficult to get on the ball and that’s probably just parts of my own game I need to develop.

“But I suppose when you’ve played against teams for a number of years they know your strengths so the new girls coming in that was the perfect opportunity to use them.

“You’ve just got to just go out and do your job. Crowd and those things wouldn’t get into my mind until I finished the game and then I can wave to people and it comes down to an athlete’s mindset and focusing on your key roles within the game and what you’re going to do for the team.”

The team will enjoy a brief down period over the next few weeks as the bodies recover from an exhausting, and intense, international window but the hard word will begin again in due course.

With an Autumn series and next year’s Six Nations between now and the World Cup, every game is valuable preparation and Spence is fully aware of that.

“It’s key for us to go in with targets and get something out of those games. It’s great preparation for us but we need to focus on elements of the game we need to improve on.

“Overall I’m really looking forward to the next 18 months, we have a long way to go as a squad before we’re there yet but these are exciting times.”

On 28 May Donnybrook Stadium will host the inaugural Dublin 7s Festival, where some of the biggest names in world rugby will descend on the capital including professional teams from England, Ireland, Italy, Norway, Japan, Germany and France. Tickets start at €15 for general admission with VIP and corporate hospitality packages are also available from www.dublin7sfestival.ie

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