Belfast Telegraph

Tributes to Ulster rugby great Willie Gribben after sudden death

Willie Gribben
Willie Gribben
Ivan Little

By Ivan Little

An influential pioneer of Ulster rugby, Willie Gribben, has died suddenly in Portadown.

Capped for his province in the Sixties, he played a pivotal role in developing rugby for children and for people with disabilities.

His death has sent shock waves through the sport and friends have hailed him as a "legend" who was "like the father of Ulster rugby".

Portadown Rugby Club said they were "sad to hear of the passing of our dear friend and brother" who it's understood was in Bath last weekend to see Ulster's Heineken Cup win.

Reports say the former headmaster took ill on the golf course yesterday and died in Craigavon Area Hospital.

It was after he moved to Portadown from Ballymena in 1970 to take up a teaching post that Willie and former Ireland international and British Lion Ronnie Lamont were approached by the IRFU's Ulster Branch to investigate the possibility of introducing rugby in primary schools.

The two men returned to their respective schools and devised plans for mini-rugby tournaments which still attract hundreds of young players every year across Ulster.

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

Former Ireland head coach Eddie O'Sullivan wrote in his 2010 autobiography that an IRFU development officer's job he applied for in 1984 went to Willie Gribben, but his Ulster rival didn't take the job. O'Sullivan said he understood that Willie was reluctant to move to Dublin.

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

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

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