IRELAND and Ulster hooker, Rory Best, paid an emotional and fitting personal tribute to his team mate, Nevin Spence, on Sunday at a Memorial Service at Ravenhill attended by almost 6,000 fans and friends of Ulster Rugby and the Spence family.
Twenty-two year old Nevin Spence died alongside his father Noel (58) and brother Graham (30) in a tragic accident on the home farm at Drumlough near Hillsborough on Saturday, September 15.
On Sunday, rugby fans paid their respects to all three members of the Spence family, but in particular to Nevin, a promising young rugby star who was expected to make his breakthrough into the Ireland squad this season.
Players from the three other Provinces in Ireland joined in the service and members of the Spence family were also present.
Former Ulster skipper, Best, made a personal tribute during the religious service led by Ulster chaplain, Rev. Andrew Thompson, with captain, Johann Muller and scrumhalf, Paul Marshall, reading lessons.
Best said: “It is with mixed emotions that I stand here today.
“It is obviously with great honour that I get to talk about Nevin Spence, the person and the rugby player, but with immense saddness at his tragic passing just eight days ago.
“It is testament to the regard that Nevin was held that there is not only a massive crowd here today but there has been a huge outpouring of emotion throughout the entire rugby world.
“There was no greater example of this than the respect shown during the minute silences in the English Premiership and the PRO12 games this weekend as well as the volume at which Stand Up For The Ulstermen was sung around the grounds after the silence.
“There are no more words than I can add that have already been spoken about Nevin over the week, all of which are 100 per cent accurate.
“But instead I want to pay tribute and give everyone here an insight into why these words have been said about Nevin, both as a rugby player and a person.
“Nevin’s rugby career really kicked-off at Wallace High School where he played for the 1st XV and represented Ireland Schools.
“Upon leaving school in June 2008, he was included in the Ulster academy and joined his beloved Ballynahinch Rugby Club, with whom his brother Graham, had played through the youth system up to the 2nd XV as a centre a few years earlier.
“While at Ballynahinch Nevin played for two seasons in the Ireland Under 20s, participating at two junior World Cups and gaining 11 caps. He was also instrumental in the fantastic success of the 2009-2010 season with the club, producing outstanding performances in helping them win the Ulster League, the Ulster Senior Cup, the All Ireland Division Two title and the All Ireland Senior Cup. It was these performances that would see him win his first Ulster cap in April 2010 against the Ospreys.
“Since then he went on to win a further 41 caps for Ulster and will surely always be remembered for spearheading Ulster’s run to their first Heineken Cup quarter-final appearance in 12 years in 2011, including that iconic head stand try against Bath.
“These performances saw Nevin selected in the 2011 Six Nations training squad and he would go on to win two Ireland A caps during that period.
“At the end of 2011 he was awarded IRUPA young player of the year, a very prestigious award as it is voted by the players from the four provinces
“Although last season was hampered by injuries, it is a testament to his will to succeed that he finished the season on a high by representing Ireland against the Barbarians in Gloucester.
“Nevin’s love for the game of rugby and his positive attitude was infectious. The sights of him training and playing for Ulster and watching his beloved Ballynahinch with his huge smile will be etched on our memories forever and everyone here will miss him.
“But the mark Nevin left on the squad at Ulster runs deeper than just rugby and I want to finish with the fond memories we have of Nev as a person.
“Firstly, Nev’s will, determination and ridiculously high pain threshold, combined with his degree in sports science, often left the medical team confused. Nevin would limp into the physio room on a Monday morning and assure our physios GG (Gareth Robinson) and Alan (McCaldin) that there was nothing wrong with him, and what’s more he had a sport science degree to back up his claim.
“Not only was he fit to play the following Friday night but he was fit to train later that day.
“It would also be in the physio room that Nevin would give the boys tips on their love life. It is quite simple he would explain. All you need is a girl who looks like Cindy Crawford and is able to calve a cow in the middle of the night.
“He even went on one day to tell us about one particular date, that in his eyes, had went very well.
He described how after dinner he had sat down to watch a DVD and, with us all listening intently expecting to hear how he brought out the Notebook or a romantic comedy, everyone was shocked to hear that Nev had put on Full Metal Jacket. But in typical Nevin style he assured everyone his date had enjoyed the movie.
“I think if you ask any of the rugby players of their fondest memories of Nev, they will all say, some maybe sarcastically, his sense of humour.
“Nev would tell a ridiculous joke and then be beaming from ear to ear in that big smile that only he had. The problem was that no one could work out whether he was a comic genius or just told really bad jokes.
“Two of his favourite jokes which I know Paddy McAllister has heard on a few occasions are: ‘There is a man around town stealing gates, if you see him do not say anything in case he takes offence (a fence).’ ‘Walking down the street, someone threw cheese over me, I just thought to myself, well that’s mature.’
“Although I have not done these jokes justice, I hope it gives you a little insight into Nev.
“Whilst this is a lighter side to Nevin, the reality is that his strongly personal traits were not unique to him.
“Having heard the full story of the tragic events of eight days ago and having met and spoken to Nevin’s mother and sister Laura the next day, as well as listening to Emma’s eulogy at the funeral, showed me the entire Spence family all shared Nevin’s humility, bravery and determination.
These traits set him apart in our squad and whilst we will miss everything about him, the effect he and his family have had on us in a short period of time will live with us always.
“Nevin Spence epitomised all that is good in rugby. He had his weaknesses on the pitch, but he was not afraid to point these out and work continuously on them, especially during some of the long periods of injury he had to endure.
“Unfortunately, injury and non-selection are part and parcel of rugby, but the relentless positive attitude that Nev displayed during those tough times is testament not only to his upbringing, but to the man himself.
“Nevin was a team player, the sort of player every team needs, but few are lucky enough to truly find. This was obvious every time he ran out at Ravenhill because Nevin loved rugby, he loved representing his province, the fans, his neighbours, his church and especially his family.
“This enjoyment of the game meant that Nev was one of the most consistent performers for Ulster over the last two seasons.
“Nevin has left Ulster Rugby in a much better place than he found it. As a player, a colleague and a friend his memory will continue to shape Ulster Rugby for years to come.
“Nev we will miss you, but we will never forget you.”