The 1% Podcast

Sophie Spence

Sophie Spence the one percent podcast lincoln recruitment


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    Sophie Spence

    Pushing for progress The 1% Podcast


My guest today is Sophie Spence.

Sophie is a titan of Irish rugby, who recently hung up her boots in 2017. Since making her debut for Ireland back in 2012, Sophie’s explosive carries, tireless tackling and strong presence in the second row helped drive Ireland towards an unprecedented era of success which culminated in a historic Grand Slam in 2013, a World Cup semi-final in 2014, a second Six Nations title in 2015 and beating the All Blacks in 2014. Sophie was also nominated for World Rugby Player of the Year in 2015.

Developing the Sport of rugby for young girls has always been a passion for Sophie. This passion leads her to become a socialpreneur, setting up Spence Rugby Academy camps across the country to give young girls the opportunity to learn and develop their skills in the sport whilst developing transferable life skills such as team work and leadership.

In this episode Sophie reflects on her early days in Newcastle, the highs and lows of her rugby career, her thoughts on retirement and the next phase of her career between Dublin and Gowerton, Wales.





Show Summary


1:00 Introducing Sophie Spence and her major athletic accomplishments

1:45 Sophie’s work in television

  • How it’s scary but also a privilege
  • Flipping around her criticism of herself as a player


2:24 The Irish women’s rugby team’s current standing

  • Their hard match against Ireland
  • Their first-time narrow defeat to Italy
  • The potential effect of the weather, especially on the French team
  • Highlighting players Katy Daley-Mclean, Tamara Taylor, Georgina Roberts


4:40 The current state of the Irish squad

  • Being in a “building stage” and the challenges this brings
  • Dealing with changes after the 2017 World Cup: retired players, new players, new management
  • Why we should be focusing on developing new caps


5:40 The end of a historic era in women’s rugby

  • The strength of the squad Sophie joined
  • A squad built by players who made sacrifices for the love of rugby
  • How rugby is more accessible now


7:00 Building a culture

  • Knowing each other as people, outside of the pitch
  • Competitiveness vs working together as a team
  • Sophie and her teammates’ “Hot chocolate group”
  • The importance of down time


8:15 Sophie’s entry into rugby

  • Her start in netball
  • Studying for a Masters in sports psychology
  • Falling in love with the culture and the ethos of rugby


9:40 Being discovered by Philip Doyle (Goose)

  • Going to an Exiles training session after an invitation by Juliet Shaw
  • Goose’s advice: to work on her fitness level
  • Her subsequent invitation by Goose to training camp


12:30 Sophie’s first steps in the rugby world

  • The lack of attention on women’s rugby at the time
  • The challenge of being new to the sport and having a lot to learn
  • Being brought on quickly by the other players


14:20 Early influences and mentors

  • Fiona Coghlan
  • Joy Neville
  • Lynne Cantwell
  • Grace Davitt


14:52 Sophie’s 2012 debut against Wales

  • The buildup before a national match
  • Ending the match early because of a frozen pitch
  • Taking the overnight train after an injury after her first cap in France


17:05 Playing for England or Ireland

  • England’s potential interest in recruiting her
  • “I was completely clueless about teams”
  • Sophie’s heart was in Ireland
  • “It was never a second option”


18:25 Success of 2013

  • Winning the 1st of 2 Grand Slams
  • Sophie’s immediate integration into the squad
  • Being new to the sport and the culture and not fully understanding the consequences of the team’s wins
  • The senior players of that year


19:35 1st Grand Slam win

  • 1st women’s international match on TV
  • The bad weather and bad conditions that day
  • How huge the fan support was


21:05 The difference between 15s and 7s

  • The different fitness level and skills required in 7s
  • The difference in game plans


22:35 Lead-up to the 2014 World Cup

  • Using Six Nations as a building platform
  • Their 8 weeks of training
  • Sophie’s struggle with an injury
  • Their discipline, integrity and training all leading up to the World Cup


25:10 Ireland win against New Zealand

  • “Everything clicked”
  • Feeling like something was off with the New Zealand team
  • The impact of seeing Irish fan support
  • Everyone coming together
  • The role of confidence


27:35 Ali Miller’s career post-injury

28:12 Losing to England

  • England had more players and more experience
  • The effect of the intensity of tournaments
  • The cumulative impact of several bad moves


29:40 Rugby in the media

  • The negative media coverage of rugby
  • Proving the media wrong by winning
  • The “bandwagon effect”


30:05 Changes in 2014-2015

  • The impact of several players leaving
  • The new energy and new ideas brought on by new players
  • Tom Tierney replacing Philip Doyle as coach
  • Why Sophie thought about leaving in 2015
  • Trying to keep a culture while the culture is trying to change


33:35 Personal nominations and wins

  • Nominated for World Player of the Year
  • Rugby Writers of Ireland Women’s Player of the Year
  • Scrumqueens Player of the Year
  • RTÉ Sports Person of the Year
  • Why these nominations were embarrassing to her
  • “It’s not a game for 1 it’s a game for 15 + the squad”


36:05 Ireland hosting the World Cup

  • Partly wishing for a sunnier, more exotic location
  • How hosting was good for the game and good for female sport in Ireland


36:55 Sophie’s 2016 concussion

  • Trying 3 times to go back
  • Needing to be out of the game for 4 months
  • The protocol and exercises required
  • The impact of not allowing herself to rest mentally
  • How being away from your team meant losing your main support network
  • The additional stress of moving twice within this period


40:15 Concussions in rugby

  • The high concussion rates
  • Learning safe tackles and equipping coaches to teach good techniques
  • “If you’re not safe, you shouldn’t be playing”
  • Taking responsibility for your own safety
  • The importance of not pressuring yourself to go back early
  • The pressure by some to limit or ban contact in training
  • Fatigue as a factor


42:44 Challenges in 2016-2017

  • The start of Six Nations
  • Missing the autumn internationals
  • Feeling unsure and lacking confidence
  • The importance of having teammates who push you forward


44:20 Psychological support

  • The lack of psychological support
  • Relying on teammates to serve that purpose


45:25 2017 World Cup loss

  • How things could have been done differently
  • The difference between 15s and 7s and the effect of players coming in without training
  • Having an unhappy squad that was unhappy with management
  • The demanding training regime and the impact of fatigue
  • On Ruth O’Reilley’s interview with Gavin Cummiskey and speaking up against issues in rugby


48:45 Retirement in 2017

  • Not being chosen for the Six Nations
  • Watching her friends retire
  • Her disappointment in watching services like nutrition counselling get removed
  • Speaking up to management as a potential reason for not getting chosen


51:20 Adapting to post-athletic life

  • The difficult transition to regular life
  • Extra pressure of going from job to job


52:55 Skills retained from being an elite athlete

  • Resilience
  • Team management
  • Teamwork
  • Self-confidence


54:15 Advice to young female athletes

  • Never give up!


54:45 The legacy of Irish women’s rugby

  • IRFU’s new strategic plan
  • More minis programs, more young people playing
  • More structure
  • The problematic lack of downtime in amateur sports
  • Needing to support the transition from minis to seniors


59:15 7s vs 15s

  • How separate these programs really are
  • Not one big happy family
  • The differences in funding and support


1:00:35 Current state of the 15s

  • How they’ve suffered because of players coming in and out
  • The need for their culture to grow


1:02:10 Initiatives around women’s rugby and women’s sports

  • Independent Review Group
  • Women in Sport policy chaired by Lynn Cantwell
  • Important input by Fiona Coghlan and men’s coach Tanya Ross
  • The many missed opportunities for women


1:04:02 Changes to be made in rugby

  • The need to change the amateur program into a semi-professional program to provide more structure and more time to build together
  • Needing more support to make rugby more accessible and to keep girls in the game


1:06:02 Future coaching or playing

  • Looking into coaching men


1:06:33 Opening a coffee shop in Wales

  • “Coffee culture” in Wales vs Ireland
  • Taking it one small step at a time