Nevin Spence was a special young man who had all the qualities that you would ever want in a rugby player on and off the pitch, according to his agent, friend and former Ulster team-mate Bryn Cunningham.
The devastating deaths of 22-year-old Nevin, his brother Graham and their father Noel in a slurry tank accident at their home in County Down on Saturday has stunned Northern Ireland and in particular the rugby community.
Yesterday, in a bid to make sense of the tragedy, Ulster players, past and present, met at Ravenhill to speak about their memories of the gifted young player.
Ulster great Cunningham was among them. As the full-back's career was coming to an end, Spence's was just beginning after switching codes from football, in which he represented his country at youth level.
Despite a difference in ages, they clicked straight away and later got to know each other even better when Cunningham, acting in his agency role for the CornerFlag Management company, worked with Nevin away from the field of play.
In a touching and heartfelt tribute, Cunningham said: “People talk about what a player adds to a squad. There's a lot more that goes into that than how well you play on the park such as loyalty, team ethos, passion, commitment, integrity and humility.
“In the 13 years that I played you could probably count on one hand how many would tick every single box and Nevin was one of those, making him totally and utterly indispensable to the club.
“That's why he will be missed so much,” he said.
Bryn recalled first seeing Nevin train with the Ulster side, realising that he had the potential to go on and play for Ireland.
“I first got to know Nevin when he came into the Ulster Academy. I remember watching him in training sessions and you could just see that there was something different about Nevin compared with the other guys.
“He had this real eagerness, not just to train but to improve as a player,” said Cunningham.
“That's the main thing about Nevin that I found so endearing. He knew he had areas to work on and he treated it as a challenge.
“He was always open to mentoring and suggestions about how to improve and he became a wonderful player. Everyone knows that in the next year or two there was every chance he would have won caps for Ireland.
“Nevin was one of those guys who when you played or trained, you wanted him on your side. He had a phenomenal work-rate.
“He was the sort of guy that never stopped working and even when he was tired he would get up and make another tackle. He was a player every coach would have given their right arm to have in their side.”
Off the pitch, youngster Spence was just as impressive.
“Whenever I retired and moved into the agency side of things and Nevin was on our books I started doing more stuff with him and I really enjoyed that because he was so good to chat to and work with on a one to one basis,” he said.
“He was a very shy guy. I remember we were doing a social media course. All the guys were there and we had to re-take about three times with Nevin as he kept putting his hand over his face in front of the camera.
“That's the way he was — he wasn't one to stand out and take all the glory. He was a team guy.
“He was also very funny and had a great sense of humour. One of the guys probably hit hardest by this will be Paddy McAllister who roomed with Nevin and spent a lot of time with him. Watching those two together was hilarious.
“Nevin was one of those special guys everybody loved. I don't think you could find one person who ever said a bad word about him. For Ulster's players now there will always be a hole that will never be filled.”
Bryn offered words of sympathy to the Spence family.
“Words can't express how sad this is. I feel so sorry for the Spence family.
“It's hard to comprehend what Mrs Spence and her two daughters are going through now.
“All everybody can do is try to give them as much support as possible at this desperately difficult time.”
Five pivotal moments in Nevin Spence's career
Nevin Spence demonstrated his potential by inspiring Wallace High School to a place in the 2007 Schools’ Cup Final against Inst — under the guidance of future Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin — at Ravenhill. Spence, who was still a month short of his 17th birthday and one of the youngest players on the pitch, showed he was one for the future despite favourites Inst triumphing 15-0. McLaughlin, who took charge of Ulster two years later, was suitably impressed.
Spence played his club rugby for Ballynahinch and, despite his tender years, was a key member of the all-conquering team in the 2008-2009 season. That proved to be the club’s most successful campaign ever, with the AIB All-Ireland Cup, Ulster Senior League title and Ulster Senior Cup all returning to Ballymacarn Park along with promotion to Division One of the AIB League. Spence stood out and was clearly on the road to rugby stardom.
Spence starred for Ireland at the 2009 and 2010 Under 20 World Championships. He played in the 2009 tournament in Japan, scoring a crucial try against Argentina in a 16-9 victory. In the 2010 campaign in Argentina, Spence figured throughout and it was obvious that a career in the senior team beckoned. He also stood out in that season’s Under 20 Six Nations campaign, his major contribution two tries against Scotland.
Spence made his Ulster debut at the age of just 19 on April 13, 2010 against the Ospreys at Ravenhill in the Magners League, coming on as a replacement. He made his first Ulster start the following week against Glasgow. Spence, who had progressed up through the Ulster Academy to a development and then a full provincial contract, became an established member of the side the next season. He trained with the Ireland squad last season and was tipped to become a full international.
If Spence was relatively unknown outside Ireland, that all changed one week before Christmas in 2010 when the 20-year-old scored a superb try in the Heineken Cup against Bath at the Recreation Ground. The Irish rugby public knew all about Spence but live coverage on Sky propelled the youngster’s growing reputation to a whole new level as Ulster stunned the home side with an excellent 26-22 victory on English soil.