Death of Nevin Spence is a huge loss


RUGBY NEWS:WORDS REALLY do seem futile at times like this. As rugby remains something of a minority sport it is also a very tight-knit one, and so anyone who had ever come into contact with Nevin Spence (and there would have been many) would have been utterly shocked by the horrendously tragic events which befell him and his family on Saturday.

As well as being talented enough to have assuredly gone all the way, like so many of his contemporaries in the Ulster set-up, Spence was an innately polite, well-mannered, good-humoured and delightful young man. This impression, along with a keen willingness to listen, learn and work, was conveyed by team-mates and coaches as well, and given he came through three years of the Ulster Academy, two as a development player and was in his second season as a professional, his premature passing along with his brother Graham and father Noel is something the entire Ulster set-up in Ravenhill and Newforge will forever struggle to comprehend.

When Spence fended off the challenges of Rhys Ruddock and Conor Murray to be voted the Irupa (Irish Rugby Union Players’ Association) Young Player of the Year in May 2011, we wrote: “the talented, hard-working Ulster centre will assuredly go on to emulate five of the previous winners (Tommy Bowe, Andrew Trimble, Luke Fitzgerald, Cian Healy and Keith Earls) by also one day playing for Ireland.”

Indeed, Ruddock and Murray both subsequently did so, and having played three times for the Irish A side, aka the Wolfhounds, Spence might well have done too but for a couple of shoulder injuries which ruled him out of first the World Cup reckoning and then last summer’s tour to New Zealand.

Spence climbed through the Ulster and Irish underage ranks, having played 11 times for the Irish under-20s, scoring four tries and playing in the 2009 and 2010 IRB Junior World Championships, and good judges throughout Irish rugby reckoned he was one of the brightest talents in the game here.

Spence had an X-factor and seemed hewn from a particularly Irish midfield conveyor belt, packing plenty of ballast into his six-foot, 95kg frame to punch above his weight. He carried hard into contact, had very good footwork and defended strongly, as well having a strong fend-off and an ability to accelerate through the gears and gaps. Coming at a time when so many of Ireland’s midfield options were moving into their 30s, it seemed he had timed his career pretty well too.

A week after picking up the Irupa award, he admitted in these pages: “It’s no secret that kicking and passing and the more intricate skills aren’t a strength of mine. In order that I don’t become predictable in the future I need to work on those and be able to do everything.”

Poignantly now, he also said of his boyhood days on the family farm. “It was brilliant. I would recommend it to anybody growing up. If you grow up in a city you kinda miss out on the farm and the animals.”

Football had been his first sporting love. He was a centre half cum midfielder with Lisburn Youths. “I punched like an elephant to be fair,” he quipped of his footballing style but he must have been reasonably handy as he played for the Northern Ireland under-16 schools side.

Spence only took up rugby with Dromore High School, before it began assuming primacy when playing in the Ulster Schools Senior Cup with Wallace High School, prompting a rapid rise through the Ulster and Irish schools into the Irish under-20s and Ulster Academy.

He followed his father Noel and brother Graham by playing for Ballynahinch, and was a stand-out part of the ’Hinch side that won the Ulster Senior League, Cup, AIL Division 2 and All-Ireland Cup in 2009-10, making his Ulster debut toward the end of that season.

Despite the injuries, he had crammed in 42 games for Ulster in the last two seasons, and made his return to action for the Ulster Ravens against their Munster A counterparts last Friday. It was all ahead of him; the rest of this season, the rest of a hugely promising career. Only the good die young.

The Ulster rugby family will pull together as best they can. Fellow members of the Ballynahinch club are looking after the farm on a rota basis. The Rabo Pro12 organisers have made it abundantly clear that Ulster will be permitted the time they need to help the Spence family and themselves to grieve, and with his sister Emma, a very talented artist well known around Newforge and Ravenhill for her paintings of players and impressions of rugby photographs, in intensive care, next Friday’s proposed trek to Zebre in Parma is indeed only a game. A game that can wait indefinitely now.

As Irupa chairman Johnny Sexton said yesterday: This is a sad day for Irish rugby and a particularly sad day for Nevins Ulster team-mates. I speak on behalf of all professional players in Ireland in sending our prayers and thoughts to the Spence family and to all of those closely associated with the family. Nevin was a good man, a fantastic young talent and a great ambassador for the sport. He will be sorely missed by the entire rugby community

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