Belfast Telegraph

Rugby pioneer Willie Gribben was a modest hero, funeral told

The coffin of Willie Gribben is brought out of Seagoe Parish Church in Portadown yesterday
The coffin of Willie Gribben is brought out of Seagoe Parish Church in Portadown yesterday
Among the mourners was Rory Best
Among the mourners was Willie John McBride
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Lauren Harte

By Lauren Harte

Mourners at the funeral of rugby pioneer Willie Gribben have heard him remembered as "a modest hero" and "the man who lived life with a smile in his eyes".

Among those in attendance at yesterday's service in Seagoe Parish Church in Portadown were former Ireland captains Rory Best and Willie John McBride.

Addressing the congregation, Rev Barry Forde, Church of Ireland chaplain at Queen's University, praised Gribben's "heart for people, joy for life and commitment to serving others that was second to none".

Capped for his province in the 1960s, the 72-year-old played a pivotal role in developing rugby for children and those with disabilities.

After moving to Portadown from Ballymena in 1970 to take up a teaching post, Gribben and former Ireland international and British Lion Ronnie Lamont were approached by the IRFU's Ulster branch about the possibility of introducing rugby in primary schools.

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Among the mourners was Rory Best

The two men devised plans for mini-rugby tournaments which still attract hundreds of young players every year throughout Northern Ireland.

Gribben later had coaching spells with Portadown, Belfast Harlequins and junior Ireland and Ulster teams from 1988 to 1992 when he oversaw the development of future stars David Humphreys and Neil Doak.

In 2013, Gribben helped set up one of the first Irish teams for players with learning disabilities, the Portadown Panthers tag rugby side.

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Among the mourners was Willie John McBride

Two years ago, he was awarded the British Empire Medal in the Queen's birthday honours list for services to Ulster rugby and those with disabilities.

Rev Forde said: "Willie cared for, worked for, and served people no matter who they were.

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"You came into his classroom and it didn't matter who you were or what your background was.

"You stepped out on the pitch and it didn't matter what your ability was, what your gender was, what your skin colour was, what accent you spoke with, you were going to be taught well by the master."

Mr Gribben is survived by his wife Edna, children Karen and Barry and wider family circle.

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