Spotting rugby rookie Sophie Spence playing for the Exiles and nabbing her before England got their mitts on her, was one former Irish coach Philip Doyle’s many wily moves.
The Tyneside native with the Lisburn mammy made her Irish debut in 2012 and was integral to 2013’s Grand Slam success and making the last four at the 2014 World Cup.
The rampaging lock was so good, that she was nominated for World Rugby’s ‘Women’s Player of the Year a year later alongside superstars Kendra Cocksedge (New Zealand) and Gaelle Mignot (France). Spence’s performances so far in this World Cup — as an impact sub against Australia and in the heart of the engine room in that epic clash with Japan — showed why she’s such a key player for Tom Tierney’s side. She looks right back to her best but only after a torrid time as she was forced to take four months off rugby in the past year after suffering a serious concussion.
Columbia University did some rare concussion research on women this year which found that, over a 14-year period, the rate was actually higher among their female athletes (23%) than their males (17%). The better news, at least, was that women and men recovered and returned to play at the same rate.
Spence got badly concussed in an All-Ireland league game for Old Belvedere against the University of Limerick. Headaches, blurred vision, constant exhaustion — she had all the classic symptoms of brain trauma.
“Loud noises also affected me. I couldn’t really function at work and what I was doing mostly was sleeping,” she revealed.
Two months into it she saw a neurologist who told her to extend her time off and have to sit out for four months challenged her as much mentally as physically.
“Initially I probably didn’t want to believe it. I just wanted to get back playing. Even though I was written out to rest I put myself under so much pressure and stress to get back, that I didn’t relax,” she
“Being out of the structure and the daily routine of rugby was really difficult for me but I focused on my support network to get me through.” Her mum Myrtle, who still lives in South Shields, came over regularly from Newcastle to help.
Spence also has lots of relatives in Belfast where she spent many summer holidays and she leaned on them, and her Irish teammates and friends, to get through this testing time.
Her injury forced her to miss the first ever women’s Autumn internationals here against the world’s top three sides.
She eventually proved her fitness with two club games for Old Belvedere and, though she missed the Six Nations opener, came off the bench against Italy, scored a try and has not looked back since.
Any residual side-effects? “None at all,” she insisted. “It was very frustrating but I’m really happy we followed all the correct concussion procedures and protocols.
“Your head’s your head — you only get one of them and I had to realise that. Once I accepted that I had headaches and really needed to take time out to deal with it, I was fine. It made me realise where I was at and what things were important to me, not just in rugby but life.”
Rugby is actually Spence’s life because it is her work as well as her passion.
The 30-year- old arrived here with a sports science degree, worked for Leinster Rugby initially and has just finished three years as DCU’s Rugby Development Officer (for both genders), where she saw their women’s playing number jump from eight to 60.
She is now a Bank of Ireland community ambassador and has also set up her own coaching business, the ‘Spence Rugby Academy Camps’, which work primarily with young girls between 13-18.
“I’ve done six (camps) since April and the level is insane!” she enthused about the rising skills.
“I had 42 girls in Virginia (Cavan) recently who could pass and hold depth without me even saying it. Their ability was just so natural and fantastic and that is down to the volunteers who are coaching them.” When she started the camps last year, just a handful might turn up. Now the average attendance is 25 and she often has double that, underlining the game’s rapid underage growth.
“Rugby’s not a game for everyone. The girls either want to carry ball and carry it hard, or else to tackle people,” she grinned.
“But they’re really excited to be involved in a team sport. They want to show off their skills and want to know if they can be like us when they’re older and what to do to get there. I just love working with girls. To see them develop is amazing.” She certainly has a coach’s eye for talent.
Before the tournament, she was asked to tip ‘two to watch’ — visiting and home — and said New Zealand’s Portia Woodman and Ireland’s rookie scrum-half Nicole Cronin. Both of them are primarily sevens players and their ability to adapt for 15s has not disappointed.
Woodman racked up eight of the Black Ferns’ 19 tries in their 121-0 demolition of hapless Hong Kong while UL-Bohs’ snipey number nine Cronin impressed on her feisty debut against Japan.
Spence also prophetically stressed beforehand that Ireland could not take any group game for granted, saying “it is going to be two tournaments within one for us”.
“First we have to get out of our pool. Only then can we think about the second half,” she warned, a prediction that has proven particularly prescient as Ireland face France in this final group decider that looks set to be another terrifying roller-coaster.
Lucozade Sport Low Cal is an official supplier to the 2017 Rugby World Cup and Sophie Spence recently helped put more than 40 fans through one of their regular ‘Made to Move’ sessions. See @lucozadesportie #MadetoMove
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