Heineken Cup: New Ulster pupil Nevin can pass his big test
This is quite a week for Nevin Spence — and it’s not over yet.
The centre/winger has just signed a contract which sees him upgraded from ‘development’ to ‘full’ Ulster senior status.
And then there is the not-so-slight distraction of his final exams in Sports Science.
“They’ll keep me occupied until the end of the week. When they’re finished, then I can turn my attention to Biarritz,” he reveals.
On Saturday (3.30pm), in what is going to be Ulster’s biggest match since January 1999, the 20-year-old will line out alongside Paddy Wallace in midfield against last season’s losing Heineken Cup finalists.
The former Northern Ireland Under 16 international footballer, who made his Ulster debut last spring when he entered the fray against Ospreys from the bench, got his first provincial start when he was included against Glasgow at the Firhill Stadium in the next match.
This season he has started in six matches for Ulster and with his three most recent outings having featured a try in two of those his confidence is growing.
His pre-Christmas touchdown in Ulster’s victory over Bath at The Rec and the one he scored against Treviso last Friday night means he has 10 points to his credit thus far — one for each of his senior appearances to date.
Spence, who played for Ireland Under 20s in the Junior World Championship in Argentina, has come a very long way in a very short time.
Nor have his appearances been of the cameo variety; he played the full 80 minutes against Munster, Bath at Ravenhill and Leinster.
He was involved for 69 of the 80 minutes against Bath at The Rec — where, in addition to scoring, he was the very unfortunate recipient of a yellow card — and for all but eight minutes against Treviso.
His inclusion against Biarritz this weekend represents rapid progress given that when Ulster played in southern France on October 17 his participation was for a few minutes of a match already lost.
A modest young man, Spence is hugely appreciative of those around him.
“I’m learning lessons from Paddy (Wallace) and either side of me there is always experience with Andrew (Trimble) and Simon (Danielli), plus Humph (Ian Humphreys), of course. That’s good for me,” he says.
“Hopefully the opportunities will keep coming and I’ll be able to take them when they do.”
He is optimistic about the Ulster set-up he has just joined in a full-time capacity.
“I think we’re going in the right direction. We’d a couple of bad results over Christmas but against
Treviso we got back on track and hopefully on Saturday we can get another win,” he continues.
The importance of this weekend’s match does not appear to have unnerved the 6ft, 15st, blonde-haired flying machine. On the contrary, there is a determined effort to play things down rather than allowing himself to be caught up in the pre-match maelstrom.
“Everybody is saying that it’s the biggest game since 1999 and I guess in many ways it is. But we don’t want to get caught up in the hype too much. We have to treat it as just another game, though of course we’re aware that it’s bigger than most,” he concedes.
Asked how he personally is feeling as kick-off time draws ever closer Spence admits: “Anybody who knows me knows that at this stage I don’t just let things wash over me.
“That’s one of the challenges for me; hopefully it’s something that will come with experience. And hopefully come Saturday there’ll be enough experience around me to mean that I can handle it.”
In talking about this weekend’s game he attaches much significance to the fact that Ulster’s fate is in their own hands this time.
“It’s a big advantage for us not to be depending on somebody else doing something to help us. We know what we need to do so now it’s up to us.”
He is looking forward to playing in front of a big crowd and in a stadium bristling with excitment, anticipation and tension. Call it the Ravenhill Factor.
“Most of our European games have been played in a great atmosphere and I’m sure this will be no different.
“For years you’ve heard about the crowd at Ravenhill being the 16th man so I hope they come through this time as well,” he says.
And while he respects Biarritz, he thinks Ulster’s approach should — and will — be positive.
“Biarritz have a lot of big players — internationals and ex-internationals — and while some people say the French don’t travel well there is a nice spread of foreigners in their side so I don’t think that will be a factor.
“We won’t be relying on them not playing well. We can’t rely on that. It’s just up to us to control what we can control.
“We know what we need to do so we have to do that rather than wondering how they’re going to play,” he reasons.