Little over a year ago, Ulster centre Nevin Spence expressed his gratitude to some of the senior players with whom he had begun to rub shoulders at Newforge.
“I think a lot of the players around me have won international caps — players like Andrew Trimble, Darren Cave and Simon Danielli,” he said.
“All of them are really helpful in terms of helping you improve your knowledge of the game. They’re also pretty understanding if you’re not quite up to scratch on certain elements of the game and they help you improve in those,” the 20-year-old added.
Proof of his improvement has come this week when, a mere one dozen games into his career as an Ulster senior, he has been rubbing shoulders with Brian O’Driscoll et al in the Irish training camp ahead of Sunday’s RBS Six Nations tete-a-tete with France.
His inclusion at such an early stage of his professional career has come as no surprise to Allen Clarke, the IRFU’s High Performance Manager who has worked with Spence for the past two years in his Under-20s teams.
“He was with me in Japan and Argentina and he’s a really good guy,” Clarke said. “He’s very professional in how he approaches his development, he’s very realistic and he knows what his strengths and weaknesses are so he is very aware of which aspects of his individual and team play he needs to work on.
“In terms of attitude, he is exceptional.. He is physically ready for the professional game and he has shown that. But we haven’t seen the best of him yet. Because he is so young he hasn’t matured in terms of his rugby understanding. Where he is now is a very good level, though.
“But he is the sort of boy who will say ‘There’s a lot more for me to improve on’ and that’s one of his great strengths. There is no doubt that he will be working diligently.
“At the same time, he will be boxing his studies away. He is a very good example of what our Academy structures are about — he’s an A Grade student, he’s completing his degree, he has come through the Academy’s pathways, national age-group sides and first year into a development contract he’s playing Heineken Cup rugby, Ireland A rugby and now he’s training with the seniors.
“Nevin is a tremendous example of what is possible.”
Spence is one of life’s winners, for he was capped in football for Northern Ireland Under-16s.
Then, having converted to rugby, he played a crucial part in Ballynahinch’s domestic Grand Slam two seasons ago. Last season he added a Six Nations medal to his collection of awards following Ireland’s Under-20s’ Six Nations Championship success.
Ten months ago he made his debut as an Ulster senior when he entered the fray as a replacement against Ospreys. Three days later he got his first competitive start when Brian McLaughlin selected him on the wing against the Glasgow Warriors at Firhill.
And it was also in Scotland that Spence made his third Ulster appearance in the 37-25 victory over Edinburgh at Murrayfield.
Last summer he played for Ireland in the IRB Under-20 World Cup staged in Argentina. All in all it has been quite a journey so far.
As the Ulster players reported back for duty following last summer’s break his thoughts on 2010/11 were: “I’m certainly not expecting anything, but when an opportunity comes along hopefully I can take it.
“Hopefully I can reach the standard needed for the Magners League and so on.”
Now he is edging towards senior international status.
A meteoric rise? Definitely.