Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 20 August 2014

Praying and playing for God and Ulster

Both in the conduct of his life and manner of his death, Nevin Spence symbolised the central role faith and farming play in Ulster rugby, says Alf McCreary

The death of the Ulster rugby star Nevin Spence, and those of his father Noel and brother, Graham, who were overcome by fumes in a slurry pit on their farm on Saturday, beg the unfathomable question: why do bad things happen to good people?

Nevin Spence was a member of a close-knit family, to whom religious observance is a central part of their lives and who worshipped regularly at Ballynahinch Baptist Church. His tragic and untimely death also highlights the strong link between farming, faith and rugby, both in Ulster and further afield.

In an age when some people think it unfashionable to mention a personal faith, Nevin Spence was one of those young people who was not afraid to pin his Christianity on his sleeve and who tried to live up to the highest standards of his calling.

Like the Olympic boxing gold medallist Katie Taylor from Dublin, he was prepared to live out his religious beliefs and, in doing so, he discovered other like-minded people who were also willing to forge strong bonds of faith and solidarity.

In a revealing interview with a Dublin newspaper recently, Nevin said that the Ulster rugby squad was "a great place to be a Christian". He talked movingly about fellow Ulster rugby player Paul Marshall, another practising Christian, who would help him in training "if we catch each other swearing, or whatever. It's just good to know that we're looking out for each other".

It is well-known that a solid core of the Ulster squad are Christians.

They include Andrew Trimble and Paddy McAllister, as well as the South Africans Johann Muller, Ruan Pienaar and Pedrie Wannenburg, who left last season.

This group regularly held prayer meetings at Ravenhill and have done so without any sense of embarrassment.

As Nevin Spence said: "There's a group of 30 lads here and the banter won't change among us, nor would I want it to. There's no divide amongst the Christians and the non-Christians."

This link between the Christian group in the tough world of rugby also had its roots, in many cases, in the land.

Nevin Spence was a member of a God-fearing family of dairy farmers in Co Down and Johann Muller, the Ulster captain, belongs to a family with extensive farming interests in South Africa.

There is also a clear symmetry between the worlds of farming and rugby.

Both depend on teamwork and unselfishness, both require hard work and endurance and both require the same kind of stolid stoicism in learning to take the rough with the smooth.

It would be wrong to suggest, however, that successful Ulster rugby is exclusively a product of a sturdy northern Calvinism, because the rest of non-Protestant Ireland also produces teams of the highest calibre.

However, because of the religious and cultural divides of Irish history, the majority of rugby players from the north went to largely Protestant grammar schools - though even that is changing because of greater integration. And rightly so.

What Nevin Spence and others like him have had in common is something that actually goes beyond denominational, or religious, labels.

It is an ingrained philosophy that sustains a shared awareness of the common good, a willingness to go out of one's way to help others engaged in a common purpose and a self-sacrifice that knows no bounds.

This was tragically true in the deaths of the three men in the Spence family and also of brave Emma Spence, who also risked her life for their safety.

When danger came, there was no holding back.

It was a matter of life and death and those involved behaved instinctively, without thought for themselves.

The tragedy that has befallen the Spence family is almost impossible to countenance.

But, even in the midst of their continuing trauma, the same principles of team-work and community solidarity have applied.

People have come forward to help with the not-inconsiderable demands of running a large dairy farm at a time of great loss. Others will rally round the Spence family in many different ways at this troubled time.

Already the statements from the Ulster rugby authorities and from respected sports figures elsewhere, as well as local leaders and clergy, have reflected the depth of feeling across the entire community.

Yet even with such eloquence from so many quarters, the suffering of the Spence family is still beyond words. It is now, however, that their strong Christian faith and those of many others will make a difference.

Their prayers may not bring direct answers as to why such terrible things have happened to such good people, but they will find that their faith will bring them an inner strength which the rest of the world might not understand, but which we all must acknowledge and respect.

There are no easy answers, but the bond of a deep Christian faith will remain with the Spence family and their friends throughout the darkest of days that lie ahead.

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