Willie Gribben: Tribute to a real Ulster Rugby pioneer

Like so many on Friday, I was shocked to learn of the death of Willie Gribben, a man who has given so much to rugby across Ireland.

Monday, 25th November 2019, 2:49 pm
Updated Monday, 25th November 2019, 10:37 pm
Willie Gribben

As part of my visits home, I had called into Edenderry Primary School on Friday morning when I was met with the news. It was devastating to the staff there, Mr Gribben’s son, Barry, works at the school where his father had previously taught when he first moved from Ballymena to Portadown.

And at Bocombra Primary School, where Mr Gribben was a former principal and his daughter, Karen, works, staff again were left in a state of disbelief at his sudden passing.

Mr. Gribben tended to shy away from the limelight, it was his way, but his contribution to rugby cannot be underestimated having played for clubs and Province and coached at junior Ireland international levels as well as at Belfast Harlequins and Portadown.

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In 2013 he established the Portadown Panthers section at the club which enabled adults and children with disabilities to play tag rugby.

That is just one small part of the legacy Mr. Gribben leaves behind having been a pioneer for rugby in Ulster over the years.

He has a long and decorated rugby history dating back to 1958 when he was first introduced to the game at Ballymena Academy. Having completed his teacher training at Stranmillis College, he joined Ballymena RFC, playing for them between 1965-70. It was during that period he also played for Ulster.

He moved to Portadown in 1970 to take up a teaching position at Edenderry PS and it also coincided with him starting to attend rugby coaching courses.

Those involved in the game back in the early 70s will remember the Bell Report which sought for the sport to be introduced to primary schools - mini rugby was born and the schools still hold tournaments today at Kingspan Stadium and Queen’s University.

Mini rugby was introduced to Portadown in 1974 and many other clubs followed the Gribben model as clubs across Ireland began to get involved. It was an initiative which has led to most clubs today having mini sections with children aged 5-12 playing each week.

All that is just touching on just some of what Mr. Gribben achieved. Indeed, it is impossible to measure or record all the work he has done for rugby over the years, much of it unseen.

He deservedly receive the inaugural SONI Ulster Rugby Volunteer award in 2016 and last year was recognised when receiving the BEM in the Queen’s birthday honours for his services to Ulster Rugby and disability sport.

On a personal level, Willie and I had many conversations about all aspects of the game over many years. I got to know him really well after I had penned an article in the ‘News Letter’, being critical around the schools and youth systems in the Province. A chance meeting saw us locked in a lengthy conversation following a rugby match we were both at.

He was agreeing with some of the points I had raised but he wanted to give me a few finer points to mull over. It was excellent advice and from then on when we met the conversation would have ultimately turned to something to do with the game he had devoted so much time over the years.

Whether it was at mini rugby on a Saturday morning at Portadown, in the afternoon with a senior side, or just bumping into him at the town, I always went on my way with some food for thought.

And while I have recently moved away from the area, the fact that even now on a return home I will not get the chance to bump into Mr. Gribben for a healthy chat on the game is hard to believe.

I extend my sympathy to his wife Edna, daughter Karen, son Barry, and the entire family circle at this extremely difficult time.

n EUROPEAN CHAMPIONS CUP: Ulster put themselves in control of Pool 3 of Europe’s Heineken Champions Cup with a determined display to win their landmark 150th game in the tournament 18-13 in Belfast - their 15th straight home win in 14 months in the competition - against Clermont Auvergne.

Having squeezed a win away to Bath in last week’s opener - Clermont showing a ruthless streak as they stormed past Harlequins - this was a crunch game even if it only was round two.

But Europe is a sprint and not the marathon of a league season, and Ulster have got out of the blocks perfectly with two wins from two.

In reality the victory at Kingspan over the Top 14 side, who won the second tier Challenge Cup last season, was more comfortable than the scoreline would suggest, Ulster dominating in most facets of the game.

The downside will of course be allowing the visitors to leave with a losing bonus point as Ulster defeated them for the third successive time at home in Europe.

Ulster are now two points clear at the top of Pool Three from the French side with Harlequins picking up a win to move third - the Irish Province can basically take them out of the equation in the back-to-back games in December.

Like at The Rec last weekend, against Clermont it was another team performance from Dan McFarland’s side, coupled with another brilliant piece of magic from John Cooney, who scored a beautiful individual try in the second half which was critical to the final outcome.

Clermont looked a pale reflection of the performance they had handed out at home to Harlequins, but that was down to the homework done by the hosts, who suffocated their key back row forwards and simply did not allow them space on the ball.

Jordi Murphy produced a solid performance in the pack while Louis Ludik produced his usual committed performance but this was, as I said, a massive team performance, the only negative being the number of penalties conceded at scrum time.

Ulster will face Scarlets this weekend in the Guinness PRO14, with a much changed side expected to take on the Welsh in Belfast, before the next leg of Europe returns, again at Kingspan Stadium, on Saturday December 7 with the first of the double header against the English Premiership side, Quins.

They are must win games for McFarland’s side and given how things could pan out in the group and others, bonus points are probably required, given they still have to go to Clermont in January before a final pool hit out against Bath in Belfast.

Having reached the quarter-finals last season, one fully expects them to do the same in this 25th anniversary year of the tournament but a home draw would be the target and you have to win your group to do that - and even then, one has to go away.

The final sprint in January will be packed with drama provided Ulster get the job done against Harlequins.