Search icon


27th Dec 2018

Sophie Spence: There was no work for me so I had to go make work

Jack O'Toole

One of the big questions that follows any athlete throughout their career is what are they going to do next?

Athletes spend the majority of their lives trying to climb their way to the top of their chosen sport and then one day they either walk away on their own accord or they’re effectively told to walk.

It’s an inevitability and for Spence it was the latter. Two Six Nations titles, a Grand Slam and a World Rugby Player of the Year nomination were some of the standout achievements from her career but when she was deemed surplus to requirements by Ireland head coach Adam Griggs it was over for her, with Spence announcing her retirement from rugby just two hours after Griggs had named his extended Six Nations squad last year.

The moment most athletes dread had arrived but it was not as if Spence wasn’t ready for it, or at least as prepared as she could be.

With a BASc in Sports and Exercise Coaching Science, a Masters in Sport Psychology and a Postgraduate Certificate in Education, and previous experience as a teacher, a rugby development officer and as a community ambassador for Bank Of Ireland, Spence had no shortage of qualifications or experience but she still needed some time to rediscover who she was and where she was going after stepping out of the all-encompassing bubble that international sport can be.

“It’s been a very up and down year, I didn’t think a year ago I’d be in the position I am in now” said Spence after opening Y Shed, a coffee shop about four miles north west of Swansea city centre.

“When it happened I was absolutely gutted to make the decision that I was going to have to step away. I was in two minds at the World Cup in what I wanted to do and I suppose when the decision is taken out of your hands do you continue for another year and try and get back in? But for me I decided to draw a line under it and focus on my career.

“I had had part-time jobs over the last few years and I was hungry to start the career as well because obviously the commitment that rugby took to be the best that could you be, that was the most important focus at that point.

“I met fantastic people that are solid friends and the memories that I have, no one can take away from me, but probably for the first six or eight months you’re trying to find out who you are again.

“Rugby was everything. Eat, sleep and drink, whatever you did, and you go from that to not having a training schedule and all this spare time and you ask what do I do? It’s just that transitional period.”

Spence cites the support of her partner Anwen Harry, her mother Myrtle and her friends for helping get her through the immediate months following her retirement as she set out to look for her next challenge.

She had a desire to stay in sport but jobs were not forthcoming and so she switched her focus to coffee and started to learn as much as she could about a booming industry with the number of coffee shops in Britain is set to overtake pubs by the year 2030 according to industry research.

“I just relocated to Wales in June,” said Spence who moved over to Dublin in 2013 after growing up just outside of Newcastle.

“I finished up with rugby, my job was finished at the end of May with the Bank of Ireland and my partner is from here so there was no point in trying to look for another job so I basically moved over and took the plunge to look for places. It was difficult finding jobs in sport so I was also preparing for what I was going to do outside of sport and three months before I moved I started looking up how to open a coffee shop.

“What I needed to know about, looking for places and we were lucky enough to stumble across this place in Gowerton. We took over in September and started refurbishing and then opened in December.

“I would have loved to have stayed and done a job in sport but it was down to opportunities and if the opportunities aren’t there I’m someone where if there is no work for me, I’ll make work for me.

“When we were training we would love to go for coffees and to go for breakfast brunches and I loved that environment and talking to people and getting to know them, being creative and so when there were no jobs I just came into this.”

Spence struggled to take my original phone call for this interview as she wrapped up one of her early days on the job.

She admits that she’s still getting to grips with her new business but she had sought advice from Colin Harmon of 3fe Coffee on Clanbrassil Street and Dave Smyth of Ebb & Flow Coffee in Clontarf to grasp a firmer understanding of the world she was entering.

The two have been a big help to her in her new career as she tries to get Y Shed off the ground but she still reflects fondly on her sports career, and while her achievements are quite notable, it’s the journey and the people that she met along the way that she cherishes the most upon reflection.

“The highlights for me were definitely the Grand Slam in 2013 and being on the first Irish team to beat New Zealand in 2017,” she adds.

“I’d rank that ahead of even being in the first Irish team to make the World Cup semi-final but the biggest thing you know was actually the early morning gym sessions where you’re surrounded by people that you can call friends.

“It’s those moments and when you’re on the pitch thinking ‘why the hell am I doing this?’, just a look from them or a pick me up gets you through the rest of the session and when you go and make a game saving tackle it’s for them.

“Those moments stick out the most for me and I feel really privileged to have that opportunity to represent Ireland and meet the people that I have done.”

With a new coffee shop in Gowerton, a wedding to plan with her partner Anwen and the next phase of her life to look forward to Spence has moved on from her rugby career but she will cherish the memories she made, the people she met and the journey she traveled.

From Newcastle to Dublin to Gowerton, it’s a life full of experience. Old and new.

WATCH: Liverpool BOTTLED the title race 🤬 | Who will win the Premier League?