Dublin City University’s new Rugby Development Officer, Sophie Spence, would have been forgiven for feeling apprehensive ahead of her first day on the job in Glasnevin. Educated in Teesside University, becoming accustomed to the Irish third-level setup might have been a daunting challenge.
However, the nightclub of choice for students in Middlesbrough during Spence’s time in college was conveniently called ‘The Hub,’ also the name of one of the more imposing structures on the DCU campus.
“It’s so strange because when I started working here and I walked through the Hub, I was like ‘oh my God, this must be kinda faith’” she tells The College View.
The Irish women’s rugby international takes over from Phil De Barra in a role that involves not only the promotion and progression of rugby on campus, but also the recruitment of talent into the university. It’s a huge challenge, given the tendencies of prospective students to view DCU as a GAA-only institution.
However, it has been a very encouraging start to Sophie Spence’s development and coaching tenure as a consistent base of 25 ladies and 50 men are turning out for training twice a week. Many of those who have become involved with DCU Rugby Club had not even touched a rugby ball four weeks ago but Spence is bringing a professional edge to their introduction to the sport.
“Huge, huge focus on participation. We want the numbers there for training. We also, for the first year now, got the students a gym programme so I’m working with Stephen Bennett (Strength & Conditioning Coach, DCU Sport) over in the high performance gym so that men and women have got one session each a week doing gym sessions” she says.
While rugby goes up against many other clubs in DCU to claim the hearts of incoming students, Spence herself was brought up in a multi-sport environment and she explains how her fondness of netball particularly improved skills that were relevant to rugby.
“Netball was really important. I mean, I played other sports as well. I did athletics and things like that but that [netball] was my main focus and a completely different game, you know, aggressive in a completely different manner; no contact, can’t move with the ball.
“But it’s down to can you catch a ball, can you run forward, you know, your movement, your agility and just get different skills that you can transfer across [different sports].”
Netball may have been a younger Sophie Spence’s passion, but it was eventually rugby which ended up becoming her true calling. A first cap for the Ireland women’s rugby team in 2012 after being spotted at an exiles camp led her to Grand Slam glory in 2013 and, of course, a famous World Cup victory over New Zealand in the summer just gone.
“Talking about it now, I’ve got a big smile on my face.
“The buzz around the campus for the three days until that game was just unreal. It was kinda so surreal to be fair and I just remember the warm-up and we were so loud in the warm-up and New Zealand seemed really quiet and I remember saying to one of the girls ‘is this strange? Are they just that confident in themselves to train that way?’
“It’s just a moment then that you want people to buy into this even more. You want more girls playing rugby, you want the future to be brighter than what it is now.”
So, is the future going to be as bright as Spence wants it to be?
“There’s only three years now ‘til the next World Cup so we’ve got to get building and building, we’ve had a few retirements. I’m not sure entirely how many but we need to start building, breeding new players. It would be nice if we had an under-20s team; the talent’s there. I did a summer camp this year and I think there were 93 girls at it and the talent is unreal.”
Regardless of what is happening on a national level, Sophie Spence’s aura certainly seems to be working its magic on DCU Rugby already. Whether or not the club’s results will reflect this remains to be seen, but the long journey to bridge the gap between DCU and the elite rugby colleges has just begun.
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