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‘Nevin Spence is still the blueprint for what we want from every Ulster player’: Best and Cave remember star

 

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Huge talent: Nevin Spence impressed all at Ulster before his life was cut short

Huge talent: Nevin Spence impressed all at Ulster before his life was cut short

Huge talent: Nevin Spence impressed all at Ulster before his life was cut short

Rory Best was sitting at home last week when his eldest son Ben asked him what Nevin Spence was like — not as a player, but as a person.

Anyone can look up the YouTube clips and see how talented the Ulster centre was, but not everyone was lucky enough to know the man.

This September will mark the eighth anniversary since Spence tragically lost his life in a farm accident, which also claimed the lives of his father Noel and brother Graham.

Even after so many years, it’s difficult to begin to comprehend such devastation, but those who were left behind are at least able to take some sort of comfort from the fact that in Ulster rugby circles, Spence left behind a lasting legacy.

Amid these difficult times, the family had cause for celebration recently as Spence’s sister Emma welcomed the arrival of twin boys, who were fittingly named Noel Graham and Nevin.

That the twins were born in the same month when Spence would have turned 30 made their births all the more poignant.

So much has happened since that fateful September day in 2012, it is easy for those on the outside to forget just how good of a player Spence was, but around Ulster, his memory remains as strong as ever.

At 30, you’d imagine that the former Ireland U20 international, who was also a prestigious under-age football player, would have been in the prime of his career. Anyone who watched him closely was in no doubt that he was destined for the top.

Spence possessed that raw power which has become such an important factor in today’s modern game, while his ability to glide past players (see his blistering try against the Dragons in 2011) had him marked out as a certain future star.

 

“Nevin had a real want to get better,” Best, who captained Spence throughout his short career, recalled.

“Sometimes good players just go, ‘Yeah, I’m great, this is brilliant’, whereas other guys go, ‘Yeah, I’m not bad, but how can I be better?’

“He had that attitude and when you think of his age and all the learning that he had to do before he got into his late 20s, where would he have been now? How much would he have picked up?

“He was a fantastic footballer as well, so his ability to learn and work hard to get better was exceptional.

“Everyone talked about how great he was when it happened, but he was still very, very young. He had so much space to get better, but unfortunately we never got to see that.

“He was around that time when the game was evolving a little bit. It went from being that international teams had one or two of these freak athletes who were big and powerful and able to offload.

“Over the last eight years, every club side has three or four guys who are proper, real power athletes.

“The way the game has gone since then would really have suited him because it became about big, strong, powerful athletes.

“You can look back at clips and see how special he was, but he was still so, so young for us.

“You see how much better people get when they get their feet under the table and get more comfortable with it. That’s when we would really have seen him come into his own.”

From listening to those people who knew Spence best, one of the things that stands out is his modesty, which many suggest meant that he never knew how talented he actually was.

Darren Cave was three years older than Spence but as soon as he broke through from the Ulster Academy, he was looking over his shoulder at the new kid on the block.

That didn’t mean the pair weren’t close, however. They may have been competing in the same midfield, but the healthy competition brought the best out of each other, as Cave fondly remembers.

“I would have been happy to help him when he asked, but at the same time I was very aware that this kid was good!” he said.

“I still sometimes go out to see his mum. She still lives in the same house. She loves to learn about Nevin. Every time you go up, there is another story she hasn’t heard.

“I always remember that we used to get supplied boots from the same company. They were doing these white ones that I absolutely loved, but Nevin wouldn’t wear them.

“They brought out new black ones which meant you couldn’t get the white ones any more. I was raging! Nevin was the complete opposite.

“We had the same size feet and we wore the same boots, so we used to swap them. I had these new shiny black boots and I remember giving out about them, so Nevin was like, ‘Here, I have four pairs of the white ones that I never wore because I wouldn’t wear them’.

“I was straight over to his house to swap them for the black ones. That probably sums up the biggest difference between the two of us.

“I was all about the, ‘Look at my white boots’, whereas Nevin was a bit more like, ‘Give me the black ones and let me get on with my rugby’.”

Spence played 42 times for Ulster before his life was cruelly cut short.

The way his mother Essie and sisters Emma and Laura have handled themselves since the tragedy has been nothing short of “inspirational”, according to Cave, who was always full of admiration for his late team-mate and friend.

“When I think of the phrase ‘Run through a brick wall’, Nevin is definitely someone who would come to mind,” said Cave.

“The way Nevin acted on and off the pitch is something that we in Ulster, and I mean that as a fan nowadays, want in our team.

“His honesty, his humility, his work ethic, his ferocity, his sportsmanship — in Ulster, that’s what we want from all of our players.

“The way Nevin handled himself is still a real blueprint for what we want to see from every player who goes onto the pitch representing the whole province.”

Live Cave, Best has now also retired, but he too knows that Spence’s memory will live forever around the Kingspan.

“He will never be forgotten because for such a short period of time, Nevin had a big impact on all of us,” he said.

Belfast Telegraph