Ulster stand shoulder to shoulder but will look back on this as the toughest season of their lives

Wed, Dec 19, 2012, 00:00

FROM THE BLINDSIDE:The death of a team-mate is tough but doing justice to his memory can bring real pride, writes ALAN QUINLAN

In all the excitement of the run-up to Christmas, it’s very easy to forget that plenty of families are going to have a hard time enjoying it. There will be none who have it harder this year than the Spence family in Co Down, the mother and two daughters who lost a father and two sons in that terrible accident on their farm back in September. I can’t imagine what they’re going through but my heart goes out to them.

When Nevin Spence died, he left a team behind him as well. Not just a team but a whole club of people who knew him and loved him and who were broken-hearted at his death. The players and staff at Ulster have had to pick themselves up and get on with the season, doing their jobs and carrying on with life in a professional rugby club. They’ve done a great job over the past few months and results have been exceptional, even allowing for the slip-up at Ravenhill against Northampton last Saturday. Nobody looking in from the outside can say what toll it has taken on them but the one thing we know for sure is that it hasn’t been easy.

Tragic death

In Munster, we had a similar sort of experience back in 2006. Conrad O’Sullivan was only 25 when he died tragically in March of that year.

We were just over a week or so short of a Heineken Cup quarter-final against Perpignan in Lansdowne Road and we were due to have a squad session in Thomond Park when the news came through that he had died. Some of the Cork lads knew about it the night before but the rest of us found out that morning.

When you hear about something like that happening, nobody knows what to do next. We had a priest come in and say a few prayers with us in Thomond Park. We didn’t train. We dispersed for a couple of days. We were just going around in shock and disbelief at somebody who was so familiar to us being gone.

Conrad had a lot of ability and a lot of talent. He was getting close to the fringes of the Munster team having come up through Pres Cork, UCC and Cork Con. He was very tight with a group of the younger lads who came out of UCC around the same time – Stephen Keogh, Denis Leamy and Frank Murphy. Those four palled around together a lot and I remember a few months before he died, the four of them went on a night out in Limerick and stayed in my house after it. They were a very close bunch, virtually inseparable. The other guy who was very close to him was Mick O’Driscoll, his first cousin.

So when it happened, those were the guys who became the priority for the rest of us. We lost a team-mate and a work colleague who we all liked but they had lost a best friend and in Micko’s case a family member. Everyone is affected differently by things and it was a very delicate time.

It had a huge impact on us as a group. For those days after it happened, you were a friend first and a team-mate second. Rugby didn’t matter. It was only sport. Life was bigger than it and bigger than all of us. It made us more sensitive to everyone who was around us.

Micko is one of my closest friends from that team and all I could think about was him and his parents and Conrad’s family. In a situation like that, you just want to be doing something or helping somebody who was really close to him. It’s not that you don’t feel the grief yourself – of course you do. But you’re conscious that there are other people who will be left with a huge hole in their life and you want to be there for them first and foremost.

Rugby was a relief

We knew we had to stick together and help each other through it. In a way rugby was a relief for us when we got going again and even a way of coping. It was what we did every day and getting back into that routine of going to work and trying to achieve something together definitely helped us through it. It helped as well that we had such a huge game coming up so soon afterwards and we really had no choice but to keep going. People go by instinct at a time like that. You can’t prepare for it.

Declan Kidney was the head coach at the time and although he would have been badly affected having had a link with Conrad from his schooldays, he had to be the man in charge. He handled the whole thing with great sensitivity. If anyone didn’t feel like going back training, that was okay. If anyone wanted counselling, it was there for them.

But it was important to keep going I think. Certainly Leamy and Micko and the lads were keen to get back involved fairly quickly. It was good for them to be around people they could be comfortable with and people they trusted. It was good as well to have something to focus on.

As the matches came one after the other that year, we were definitely conscious of trying to win for Conrad and to honour him with what we did on the pitch. His name would have come up a lot as the season went on and as we came up to the final. It didn’t always have to be said but at the same time we knew there was an extra bit of drive and determination there because we wanted to do his memory justice. It wouldn’t have been something we’d be going around shouting from the rooftops but it was there, in amongst ourselves all the way.

Strength and determination

I’ve watched the way Ulster have gone about their season ever since Nevin Spence died and it’s been so impressive. Like that, they don’t go around saying they’re doing it for Nevin or anything but his memory is obviously with them. Overcoming it takes a lot of strength and a lot of determination. I guess you have two choices – you can decide you don’t want to go to work or you can carry on and try to absorb the pain among your friends.

I’ve heard people say that rugby is a great distraction when something like this happens but I don’t think that’s quite what it is. You’re not trying to distract yourself from what has happened – you’re trying to keep yourself moving. It’s easier to cope with a loss if there’s a dressingroom full of people helping each other do it together. You’re far better off doing it that way than sitting at home in the house.

There’s no doubt that Nevin Spence would have wanted his friends and team-mates to go back to work and to put everything they had into the jersey he wore. There’s no doubt either that he wouldn’t have liked them to have had a bad season after he was gone or to have allowed his death to be used as an excuse, even just among themselves. The season they’ve had since his death has been fantastic – top of their Heineken Cup pool with three wins out of four, top of the Rabo with 10 wins out of 10. They’re doing him proud with every performance.

Empathy and respect

And they’re doing his family proud too. There were some lovely things said about him by rugby people from all around the world after he died and it was great to see the sport coming together like that. But it can easily happen that well-meaning people only remember that a rugby player died when to his mother and two sisters, a whole half of their family was lost. His father and his brother were people in their own right and the community that lived around them in Co Down will have felt their loss just as much. Within Ulster rugby, there’s empathy and respect for them as well.

When you’re hit with such a profound loss, you only have routine to guide you. I’m sure those players and staff keep Nevin with them as they’re going about their daily work. Most of the time, it’s probably not a collective thing. Most of the time, it will just be an individual thinking quietly to themselves or offering a bit of support to one of the guys who was especially close to him.

I’ve never forgotten Conrad O’Sullivan and neither has anybody who was involved with Munster at the time. When this season is over, these Ulster players will most likely look back on it as the toughest of their lives. But they will look on it with pride as well, knowing they did justice to the memory of their team-mate.

Friday

RaboDirect Pro12: Ulster v Leinster, Ravenhill (7.05); Blues v Scarlets, Cardiff Arms Park (7.05); Warriors v Edinburgh, Scotstoun (7.35).

Saturday

RaboDirect Pro12: Zebre v Treviso, Stadio XXV Aprile (2.0, Irish time); Connacht v Munster, Sportsground (5.15); Ulster Bank League (2.30): Banbridge v Rainey, Rifle Park; Ballymena v Armagh, Eaton Park; Ballynahinch v Ards, Ballymacarn Park; Instonians v Malone, Shaws Bridge; Dungannon v City of Derry, Stevenson Park; Belfast Harlequins v QUB, Grafton Arena.

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