The former Ireland lock’s last Test was against Wales – now she’s coaching them!
Sophie Spence’s transition from player to coach
We’ve probably all had enough of Zoom calls over the past year, but here’s one that would be fascinating to listen in on. Each month the ten people on the WRU’s Player to Coach programme gather remotely for a webinar on the latest elements of the course, and to share ideas.
Those players include Wales internationals Gareth Anscombe, Rhys Patchell and Elinor Snowsill, as well as former Ireland lock Sophie Spence – just think of the insight you’d gain into the latest trends in rugby and how the game is coached. As Spence says: “There are things you’ve not thought of and you can learn from other people.”
Spence, who won two Six Nations titles and was part of the team that beat New Zealand at the 2014 World Cup, turned 34 last month but it is nearly three years since she last played. She announced her international retirement when she wasn’t named in Ireland’s 2018 Six Nations squad and finished playing all rugby that season.
At the time she was disappointed she didn’t get the farewell she wanted, but now she says: “I’ve got a different outlook. It took a bit of time but not everyone can finish when they want to and now I look back on the fact I got to go to two World Cups and made lifelong friends.”
While her playing days are over, she is still heavily involved in rugby. World Rugby launched a Coaching Internship Programme for RWC 2021, which has now been postponed until 2022, where developing female coaches are embedded into the back-room teams of participating nations and Spence has been chosen by Wales.
She joins a new coaching team headed up by Warren Abrahams and with Rachel Taylor as skills coach, and has enjoyed the buzz around the camp.
“It’s a new management team and it’s nice to start the journey together,” says Spence, who grew up in South Shields and qualified for Ireland through her mother. “It’s ‘positive vibes only’, which breeds a good positive culture.
“I think the girls are keen to see what Warren has to offer. He has a focus on being a top-four team and it’s how we get there. The girls are hungry to learn, to get the best and most out of each session. We’ve got the big picture, then it’s how the small parts work on that journey to the World Cup and beyond.”
Spence also coaches the men’s team at Penclawdd RFC but admits to being nervous when first going into the Wales camp due to the step up to elite level.
“It’s different within a high-performance environment. The guys I’m with now are in division one and while the women aren’t professional they’re playing at that standard, so it’s a whole different ball game.
“It’s on me to deliver as best I can so the girls get as much as they can out of it. My nerves have settled now and it’s great working with Tayls as well, learning from one another.”
Spence faced several members of the current Wales squad in her final game for Ireland at RWC 2017, the likes of Snowsill, Siwan Lillicrap and Shona Powell-Hughes, and now she’s coaching them.
Next month, when the rearranged Women’s Six Nations gets started, Spence will also be coaching against some of her former Ireland team-mates, although she doesn’t see that as a big deal. Andy Farrell, for instance, is coaching a different country to the one he played for.
“It’s a job and you behave as a professional,” she says. “I think the Ireland girls would be exactly the same. The girls have been really supportive and even when you compete against each other, you’re all friends at the end of the day and there’s respect wherever you are. The key focus will be on the jobs we’ve got to do – they won’t be worrying about back-room staff and that sort of thing.
“I think the beauty of how you grow as a coach is seeing what moves bring – different countries, different set-ups. If you stay in one position for so long you can get stale, so the best thing is to continue the journey and maybe after a period of time look for new challenges.”
Spence’s coaching journey began with Leinster’s community department in 2013 and she went on to coach at Dublin City University as well as set up her own academy to give more girls in Ireland access to rugby. That’s had to go on the “backburner” for now due to Covid, but she enjoys seeing players develop at every level.
“Coaching fitted well with playing. I was hungry to learn and wanted an opportunity to develop myself. It was also what I could do to implement change and promote the game even more, trying to be an advocate for the game.
“Seeing progression, even the smallest thing, is great. It could be U7s or senior rugby, but small changes can have a huge impact on someone’s game, or life. What you learn from rugby you can take into everyday life – the confidence it gives you, the transferable skills. It’s a beautiful sport.”
She’s due to complete her year-long Player to Coach course in September and hopes to continue working in a high-performance set-up going forward.
Yet rugby isn’t Spence’s only interest or career; she also owns a coffee shop. She opened Y Shed in Gowerton in December 2018 after making the move over to Wales with her Welsh partner, now wife, Anwen Harry, and it proved a great way to meet people in the area.
The past year has been tough given lockdown restrictions and so on, but she enjoys having the coffee shop alongside her rugby commitments.
“It’s always good to have different projects on the go and it’s something I enjoy. It’s allowed me to meet different people and build different relationships, which was important for me moving here. I didn’t know anyone other than my wife and her family, so it’s been nice. I’ve also started road biking and like getting out for coastal walks and enjoying the scenery here, which is beautiful.”
This article originally appeared in the March 2021 edition of Rugby World magazine.
Follow Rugby World on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.