Nevin Spence: Rugby player with a promising future

 

Nevin Spence, a 22-year-old rugby union player from County Down in Northern Ireland, appeared destined for a fruitful and internationally recognised career before he died with his father, Noel, 58, and brother Graham, 30, in a tragic accident in the slurry tank on the family farm.

A wing-turned-centre whose burgeoning talent went hand in hand with the resurgence of his province, Ulster, on the European rugby scene, Spence had begun his third senior season by playing 70 minutes for Ulster's A team, the Ravens, against Munster A at Deramore Park in south Belfast on the day before he died. The summer had been a time of rehabilitation from a shoulder operation; Spence had also been appointed a brand ambassador for the Dairy Council of Northern Ireland, but while he featured in a light-hearted photo shoot with cows on the farm in Hillsborough his relations affectionately acknowledged that he was "just a part-time milker".

Rugby was Spence's chosen career, and the apex to date had been an appearance for an Ireland XV in the uncapped match against the Barbarians at Gloucester in May. He was a replacement covering his fellow Ulster centres Paddy Wallace and Darren Cave and he came on for another Ulster player, the wing Craig Gilroy, for the final few minutes of a 29-28 defeat. Having made two appearances for Ireland's second XV, the Wolfhounds, in 2011 against Scotland A and England Saxons, and a third against the Saxons again in January 2012, Spence was set for a sustained tilt at full senior caps.

He represented Ireland at centre in each of their five matches in the 2010 Under-20 Six Nations Championship – which they won – scoring a try against Italy and another two in the 44-15 defeat of Scotland that sealed the title. In between there was a 25-10 win over England U-20 at Gloucester, after which the Rugby Football Union match report noted: "Nevin Spence beat tackles to get Ireland in the right half of the field." It was an apt summary of the strong running and aggressive tackling that the 6ft tall and 15 stone Spence brought to his attack and defence, adding physical substance to his eye-catching thatch of white-blond hair and breezy, earnest character. He continued to represent the Under-20s in the IRB Junior World Championship in Argentina in summer 2010, when they recovered from a disappointing pool phase to beat Samoa 37-10 and Scotland 53-23 and finish ninth.

Spence hadbeen proficient at two codes at Dromore High School and he represented Northern Ireland's Under-16s in football, playing at right-back in the team that beat England in 2005. Manchester City were one of the clubs said to have shown an interest in signing him. But with his mother Essie's encouragement he left Dromore in 2006 to go to Wallace High School in Lisburn for his A-levels, and his rugby flourished there. A hat-trick of tries in the quarter-finals of the Ulster Senior Schools Cup helped Wallace to a semi-final at Ravenhill in Belfast – Spence's first taste of the famous old rugby ground he would relish playing at many more times among his 42 appearances (scoring five tries) in the white jersey of Ulster.

He played for Ulster Schools and Irish Schools, and his powerful performances for Ballynahinch – where his brother Graham was renowned already for the "Spence hand-off" – went along with joining Ulster's Rugby Academy in 2008. In May 2011 Nevin was recognised by his peers in the Irish Rugby Union Players' Association as Young Player of the Year, having been Ulster's Academy Player of the Year a year earlier.

After a senior debut for Ulster near the end of the 2009-10 season, Spence had his breakthrough proper in 2010-11. He played more than 20 times for Ulster, scoring a try finished with a somersault in a win away to Bath in the Heineken Cup in December 2010 and playing alongside Wallace in the quarter-finals in a narrow loss to the eventual finalists Northampton. He was called to train with the Ireland squad for the 2011 Six Nations.

The 2011-12 season was disrupted by injury, and Spence – a committed Christian who was a member of Ballynahinch Baptist Church – finished it as only the 24th man for Ulster's Heineken Cup final against Leinster at Twickenham in May. But his rich promise had earned him starts in three of Ulster's six pool matches against Leicester, and Aironi, twice. David Humphreys, the former Ireland fly-half who is now Ulster's director of rugby, said: "Nevin was a dream player to work with. He was the epitome of what we were looking for."

Hugh Godwin

Nevin Spence, rugby union player: born 26 April 1990; died 15 September 2012.

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