One of the great privileges of being able to write this column is that it offers the opportunity to draw attention to things that are important to me.
Rugby is more than just a sport. It brings people together, it tests them and it forges bonds and friendships which endure long after your playing career is over.
It is a family, and like all families, its strength only truly reveals itself in adversity.
The rugby family has come together in the last fortnight to support the family of one of Ulster Rugby’s most popular characters, Michael ‘Raker’ McLean, who has sadly passed away, aged 59.
In fact, describing Raker as a character doesn’t do him justice.
He wouldn’t be happy with that description, he would much prefer to be referred to as a rugby legend.
Raker truly was a one-off. He was jovial, warm, funny and blessed with a remarkable enthusiasm and zest for life and all things rugby.
A short time in his company and he would make you feel like you were his best mate.
I got to know Raker best on a rugby trip to Hong Kong several years ago. The mastermind behind a team called the Irish Vikings, which competed in the Hong Kong Tens competition, Raker was the coach, manager, travel agent, and most importantly, social secretary.
There was little Irish about the group — apart from Jonny Bell and me, the players came from all over the world, but all were happy to be ‘Paddys’ for the week.
Having arrived early Saturday evening, rather than a bite to eat, a light stroll and an early night, Raker made the call — forget jet lag, everyone in the foyer 8pm sharp.
Needless to say, it was a very late night and we felt decidedly shabby the next morning. The next night was exactly the same, the only difference being an earlier start time.
Jonny and I were in tatters by the time training came around on Monday.
Passes were dropped, the pace was pedestrian at best, when suddenly Raker roared, got us into a huddle and lectured us about how lethargic we looked and reminded us of our responsibility to the name of the Irish Vikings.
Despite being the biggest reason for our weary state, Raker got what he wanted. His energy picked the rest of us up and suddenly we were back in the groove and looked like a rugby team.
It was a magnificent trip and it was all down to Raker. He was the ultimate tourist and tour leader.
He enjoyed leading from the front and made friends wherever he went.
He was larger than life and the rest of us simply followed because we knew that it would be the best craic. From then on I called him Uncle Rake.
Over the years, thousands of people will have heard Raker’s roar from the announcer’s microphone at Ravenhill — his familiar ‘C’mon Ulster’ and encouraging the crowd to belt out ‘Stand Up For The Ulstermen’.
Raker also loved having the stage to entertain his audiences in the corporate hospitality tents.
Without fail he would deliver the line that in his own rugby career people used to compare him to Mike Gibson.
Then he would follow it up with, ‘They’d say compared to Mike Gibson, you’re rubbish!’ Even though you knew the punchline Raker got such a giggle out of it himself that you couldn’t help but sit there and laugh — a natural performer.
Raker will be missed terribly. In a world dominated by different shades of grey, Raker was psychedelic.
He added colour to any occasion, and his ready smile was infectious.
Having watched Ulster’s momentous victory over Munster, I couldn’t help but think that If Munster had the advantage of Thomond Park, Ulster had its own 16th man.
He would have been cheering them on from heaven’s tribunes, the angels in full chorus.
I do not mean this flippantly — if anyone can get heaven rocking it is Raker. No one would have taken more pleasure from Ulster’s win.
Forget half full, Raker was a man whose glass was full to the brim. He made me laugh and smile every time I met him.
Sadly, I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye and I hope that this tribute goes some way to saluting a truly great rugby man.