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16th Sep 2020

“Nevin would have absolutely loved it in this Ulster group”

Patrick McCarry

Nevin Spence

“It sits in its own place as a part of the history of this club.”

Tuesday, September 15 marked eight years since the tragic passing of Ulster player Nevin Spence and his former team, and teammates, were once again united in putting time aside to remember him.

Spence was only 22 when he died in a farm accident along with his brother, Graham and father, Noel. He had played 42 times for Ulster and had been called in to train with Ireland’s senior squad on a couple of occasions.

Many of Spence’s teammates from 2012 are still part of the Ulster squad, including Craig Gilroy, Luke Marshall, Rob Herring and captain Iain Henderson, and they all were part of a reflective moment before the team looked ahead to this weekend’s Champions Cup game against Toulouse.

Ulster head coach Dan McFarland was an assistant coach with Connacht at the time of Spence’s passing. They would have been in the same orbit but McFarland says he was not fortunate enough to know him, personally. McFarland was asked, on Tuesday, how Ulster remembered Spence on the anniversary of his passing. He commented:

“That’s run by the guys who obviously knew Nevin really well. We had a moment today, remembering Nevin in the way that the guys want to remember Nevin. We set aside whatever time those guys feel is necessary to do that. It is a really poignant moment.

“One of the points the guys made to me as I was chatting with them was that Nevin would have absolutely loved it in this group of guys, because of the way they approach the game and their attitude and their bleeding for the jersey.

“I didn’t know Nevin on a personal level, but when guys are talking about him like that, you obviously really wish that he could have been here to share it with us.”

To McFarland, the passing of such a talented, young player is sacrosanct and would never be used as a motivational tool ahead of a big game. He said:

“In terms of using it this week, no. That sits in its own place.

“It wouldn’t be right to use that. It wouldn’t be. It is what it is and it sits in its own place as a part of the history of this club – a very sad part of the history of this club.”

Nevin Spence played for Ireland U20s and Wolfhounds and trained with the senior squad when Declan Kidney was in charge. (Credit: Sportsfile)

Ulster reviewed their Guinness PRO14 final loss to Leinster on Tuesday morning and then, as McFarland puts it, flushed it and moved on. They cannot afford to linger on that painful loss too much, especially with this make-or-break quarter final against Toulouse.

“Toulouse have pace in their team but they also have size. Set-piece-wise, their scrum is [delivered with French accent] formidable! It’s massive and puts a lot of pressure on teams in the French league. Big ball-carriers, an off-loading team. When they’re in behind you, you’re done.”

“It does pose a big challenge for us,” McFarland adds, “technically and how you go about working the gainline against their style of carriers. But also how we break down their defence.

“They have a lot of big guys and big guys tend to fill space well without actually needing that much width. They also have a hard-press defence, on the edge, that shuts down your runners.

“The offload game is not something we have necessarily faced since Connacht, and these guys are a little bit different in terms of their offload. Their offloading game is all about dominating you physically and their big men being able to get their hands free…

“Their No.9 [Antoine Dupont] is arguably the best 9 in the world and their 10 [Romain Ntamack] is quite some player as well. And they have Cheslin Kolbe, who is a threat that everyone talks about.”

In short, Toulouse have a lot of weapons that can hurt Ulster.

As for how Ulster fire back, they will have Henderson ft and raring to go and one suspects Marcell Coetzee will play through the pain barrier. The big calls, again, will be around the back row and the half-backs. John Cooney was challenging Dupont for best scrumhalf in Europe, before the pandemic-enforced break, but he was dropped for the PRO14 final, last weekend.

McFarland is expecting a few tough conversations, regarding selection, this week but stresses that there is complete buy-in once the matchday squad is named.

“Conversations are between me and them but there’s nothing new in professional rugby,” he said. “There’s not a player in the team that won’t be disappointed if he’s not selected.”

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