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Friday 3 February 2023 Dublin: 10°C
Presseye/Matt Mackey/INPHO Nevin Spence passed away 10 years ago.
# RIP
Remembering Nevin Spence ten years on: 'It was like losing a brother'
Spence was on the cusp of an international call-up when an accident on the family farm ended in tragedy. Former team-mates relive the anguish of a day that changed their lives.

DARREN CAVE WAS heading out. The Lisburn Road is straight and flat, tree-lined on one side, terraced on the other. He remembers walking by the shop fronts, stopping at an off license to get a few beers, sending a text message to a friend with to-the-point information.

“There in five.”

The next time he’d pick up that phone, trauma would follow.

**

Paddy McAllister was staying in. He was still recovering from surgery, worried about the injury that threatened his career, feeling a bit low even though he’d plenty of things going for him, a close circle of friends, a loving family, a devoted girlfriend he planned to propose to.

Few knew of his intentions. But Nev was one of them. To Paddy, Nevin Spence was always Nev. The pair had lived together after leaving school, joining the Ulster Academy at the same time. They’d each grown up with a rural backdrop; each had ‘younger brother syndrome’ as well as a strong faith in God.

“He was my safety blanket,” McAllister says of Spence, his former team-mate. “As two young Christian men within the Ulster set-up, we held ourselves accountable. That was a really nice thing to have.”

This was 2012. Earlier that year, after Ulster had advanced to the Heineken Cup final, McAllister and Spence sat together in the Aviva Stadium dressing room. “I am going to ask Deborah to marry me,” McAllister told Spence.

Ten years on, now that Deborah is his wife, now that they have three children with a fourth due next week, the memory of that conversation is a source of comfort to McAllister.

They were tight. McAllister is a straight-talker, Spence a careful listener, quiet on one level, but good humoured. “He was like another brother to me,” McAllister says.

For Chris Henry, his relationship with Spence was somewhat different. For starters, he was six years older, and in rugby dressing rooms, six years equates to six decades in terms of the things you’ve seen on a pitch and the things you wish you hadn’t. Youngsters quickly learn about the hierarchies in this unforgiving arena where a veteran’s jokes are always regarded as funnier than the punchline delivered by a kid.

So, Henry looked out for Spence from the start, partly because he went to the same school, partly because he grew up nearby, partly because he saw a younger version of himself.

“The word always used about Nevin is brave,” says Henry. “I could see him developing, could see that he doubted himself but knew that this was a common enough thing with young players. You get imposter syndrome. He might have been getting a run of games for Ulster but he just didn’t realise how good he was.”

But Henry knew, Cave too. The latter was a rival for the shirt with Spence and had played in the centre with Gordon D’Arcy, Brian O’Driscoll and Andrew Trimble. “Ah, Trimbey, that’s who Nevin was most like,” says Cave. “He had that fearlessness. Pain didn’t bother him.”

It bothered others. One day in training, Spence accidentally collided with Stephen Ferris – cub bashing into a British and Irish Lion, a grand slam winner and much bigger man in size and status. Ferris left the collision with a cracked cheekbone. “There was never malice with Nevin,” says Henry, “just an absolute desire to be the best he could.”

Those attributes had brought him back from injury ahead of schedule. On the day before he died, he played for Ulster A at Deramore, his first game back after surgery. Afterwards he and McAllister went out for something to eat before heading up to Ravenhill for Ulster’s Pro12 derby with Munster.

They left the stadium together. “See you Monday,” Spence said.

If only.

**

nevin-spence-scores-a-try Presseye / Matt Mackey/INPHO Spence had the ability to play for Ireland. Presseye / Matt Mackey/INPHO / Matt Mackey/INPHO

It is early Saturday evening. Henry is watching TV when his flatmate Cave says he’s heading to a friend’s house across town.

His phone buzzes.

Jacques Benade, his old coach from Malone Rugby Club, has sent an unusual text.

“Have you heard this news, Chris? Tell me this isn’t true.”

Henry replies: “What are you talking about?”

More messages follow from other players and officials.

By now Henry is in shock, thinking there is some sick joke being played, that someone, somewhere started a rumour and that he, and his friends, have been pranked. To unearth the truth, there’s one person to call, Ulster’s captain, Rory Best.

Best picks up but doesn’t speak. Shock, grief stops him getting the words out. Suddenly, Henry realises, a horrible nightmare has become real.

**

Forty miles away, in his family home at Markethill, McAllister’s phone is also ringing. 

“I think something might have happened at Nev’s farm with his brother,” McAllister gets told. “Could you give him a call to see if we can do anything?”

At this stage, the full story hadn’t emerged.

So, McAllister dials Spence’s number.

It rings out.

Next he calls his agent, Ryan Constable to relay what he’s been told.

“It might be a bit more serious,” Constable says. “It might be his dad involved in an accident as well.”

McAllister turns on the news to see if he can get information that way.

For once, no news isn’t good news.

He calls Spence’s number again. When there is no answer, he knows something ‘major’ has happened.

“Don’t ask me how,” he says now. “It was just a feeling I had.”

**

Irish Independent report, 13 January 2013.

The Ulster player Nevin Spence, 22, his brother Graham, 30, and their father Noel, 58, died at the family farm near Hillsborough, Co Down.

An inquest in Belfast heard the incident (in September 2012) was first triggered when Graham Spence entered the tank to find a collie dog that had fallen in.

Graham climbed down with a torch and conducted a quick search for the animal.

Seeing his brother fall into the slurry, Nevin then climbed down. Mr Andrew Oliver (a friend of Nevin’s) rushed off to call for help.

Shortly afterwards, the Ireland under-20 international also succumbed to the poisonous fumes and collapsed into the slurry.

Noel then went down into the tank. He managed to retrieve Graham and began carrying him back up the ladder. Mr Oliver grabbed hold of Graham’s clothing from above as his father climbed upwards.

“Noel was overcome and fell down the ladder,” he said.

“I wasn’t able to hold Graham without Noel’s help.”

Emma Rice, who was also overcome by the poisonous gases when she climbed down a ladder to try to find her father and brothers, told Northern Ireland’s Senior Coroner John Leckey that she knew how dangerous it was to go into the pit.

“When it comes to the love of your family, it doesn’t matter,” she said.

Mr Leckey said Mrs Rice’s actions were “extremely brave”.

**

book-of-condolence-opened-at-ballynahinch-rugby-club-for-nevin-spence Presseye / Jonathan Porter/INPHO A book of condolence opened at Ballynahinch Rugby Club. Presseye / Jonathan Porter/INPHO / Jonathan Porter/INPHO

A decade has passed since that awful day. The boys aren’t rugby players anymore, Henry retiring in 2018, Cave a year later, McAllister 15 months ago.

Life has moved on but life can never be the same when someone close to you passes away. Bachelors in 2012, they’re fathers and husbands now, each of them deeply affected by the trauma.

For McAllister, there was torment. Nevin’s passing, combined with his own injury, saw him veer closely towards depression. One week, six months after the tragedy, he went out on the town five nights out of seven.

“I’d log into Facebook, see that friends of friends had posted they were out, and I’d message them. ‘Where are you?’ Next thing I’d join them.”

He didn’t realise it at the time but he was grieving badly, partly for his career, mainly for his friend.

“I don’t shy about my mistakes,” McAllister says. “I was suffering a lot from injuries, my career was on the line, Nevin passing away, living in apartment by myself in Belfast, going out those five nights; it was all a coping method.”

His girlfriend, now his wife, sat him down. “I’m here for you but we can’t be like this, Paddy.”

McAllister’s initial reaction was ‘selfish, egocentric’. But within minutes he realised Deborah was right. “We had a great discussion,” he says. “Things changed that day; that was the turning point for me.”

Faith had guided him before then and continues to do so now.

“It is an extremely difficult thing to want,” he says “because faith is blind. I cannot see Jesus. So, of course you get tested and of course you struggle. There are a lot of whys in faith. It is such a hard thing to believe in but when you do believe in it, it’s strong.”

As McAllister suffered, Cave had a strange kind of guilt. A centre like Spence, his career benefited from Nevin’s passing. “How do I word it? I didn’t have the relationship with him I should have had because we were competing for the one position,” Cave says. “I regret that so much because I really liked Nevin.”

At the funeral, the players were asked to carry the coffin. Henry, who had recently lost his father, was shaken. “You are meant to bury your parents but you are not meant to bury a friend as young as Nevin.”

They then looked at Spence’s sisters, Emma and Laura, his mother, Essie, and felt something powerful. “I took a lot of comfort from their strength,” Henry says. “It is hard to ever feel pity for yourself when you look at people ploughing on with such dignity.”

Cave lost his mum at 2016. He has since got married and become a dad. “Mum missed our wedding, missed the kids being born. These girls are my all and my mum has never met them.”

It made him think. “Nevin may have been a father. There are grandkids Essie could be missing out on. That’s the bit …”

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His words tail off. 

**

darren-cave-and-nevin-spence Lorraine O'Sullivan / INPHO Cave and Spence together in 2011. Lorraine O'Sullivan / INPHO / INPHO

This evening in Belfast, to mark the tenth anniversary of his passing, Ulster Rugby will officially open the Nevin Spence Stand before their season opener against Connacht.

If it hadn’t have been for that tragedy, you wonder if he’d be playing tonight, wonder how good he could have been.

This is Henry’s view: “I’m biased but he definitely would have worn a green jersey. He was easy to teach. He had the physicality and the bravery. If you are a coach, and you are looking to mould someone, Nevin ticked all the boxes.

“So, even though centre was a highly competitive position in Irish rugby, he’d have done well because that self-doubt I mentioned earlier, that would have disappeared with experience. That was the case with me, has been the case with other players. That would have been the same with Nevin, too.”

McAllister, the player who knew Spence better than anyone else in the Ulster dressing room, is similarly convinced a career with Ireland lay ahead. “Look at his qualities: he was a tough-minded player. Niggles and injuries, even though I knew he was suffering, he didn’t look for an easy out. Instead he did extra work to get better and didn’t do that for show.

“So yes, it is one of those questions, a nice one; could he have been a 50-capper for Ireland, an international centurion?

“I often get into a game of what-ifs. How far could Nevin have gone in the game? I know one thing – he’d have played for Ireland.”

This is Cave: “He could have done anything. I went to a World Cup at 27 when I was at my peak. Nevin was 22 when he passed and already by that stage, he had the things you needed, ability, attitude and a willingness to be coached.

“There was not a trace of pig-headedness or arrogance in him to ignore feedback – which you get with some players. So I wouldn’t have put an upper limit on what he could have done.”

It was telling how Cave, Henry and McAllister stopped you in your questioning at the same point of the conversation. Yes, talking about Spence the player was important because that formed such a huge part of his identity. But it wasn’t just a gifted centre Ulster lost that day in 2012.

They think of Essie, Emma and Laura, the family who lost a husband, a father, two sons and two brothers. “Whatever about his rugby achievements, think of the joy he would have given so many of us over the last 10 years,” says Henry.

**

nigel-brady-nevin-spence-and-paddy-mcallister Darren Kidd Spence shares a joke with McAllister and Nigel Brady. Darren Kidd

It was McAllister who brought Cave and Henry out to the family farm. “Paddy and Nevin were like brothers,” says Henry. By this stage, Cave had sat down and written Essie a long letter.

“I felt a burning need to tell her what it was like to compete with Nevin for a position in the team, but to also be his team mate.”

Soon the three of them were sitting around the Spence kitchen table. “Essie loves learning about Nevin,” says Cave. “She is fascinated. She is still getting to know her boy, loves hearing stories about him.”

Essie put them at ease. Separated by a generation, she became a friend to three grieving men.

“I grew up in the country but never in a farming background,” says Henry. “Being in that family home, getting to know Essie, Laura and Emma, I’m not surprised Nevin became such a humble person, knowing how he was shaped. They’re an incredible family.”

Life is different for them now. They are out of the rugby bubble. The biggest days of their careers, a World Cup for Cave, Henry’s huge role for Ireland in the 2014 Six Nations championship, are all in the past.

They’ve swapped dressing rooms for offices, rugby jerseys for shirts and ties, but team-spirit isn’t ‘just an illusion created by winning’ as the old footballer John Giles once put it. In the lives of these men, Nevin Spence will always be there.

“At random moments, when I’m driving home to my mum’s place which is close to the Spence farm, it hits you then,” says Henry. “I miss him.”

The upset, the shock that McAllister suffered from initially, has eased. But every time he sees the time on the clock when he heard about Nevin’s passing, he thinks back to that terrible Saturday when his life changed.

“As you get older as a man, you might not be as outwardly emotional or affectionate as you should be but a powerful deep emotion stays inside. You can’t describe it in words but you definitely feel it. For me, losing Nevin was like losing a brother.

“Where would he be now? That’s always a dangerous path to go down because no one likes to live in hindsight. But in this scenario, in your mind, you picture Nevin with a family, and it’s a nice picture to have. Then you think, man it is crazy how he was taken away.”

McAllister has three children aged under six. “They know who Nevin was. They know who Essie is, who Emma and Laura are. We visit regularly. Emma is my daughter’s GB leader.

“My kids want to watch Nevin on YouTube and I’m happy about that. My son is Robert Maximus Nevin – named after Nevin. That memory will live on. They understand he is daddy’s friend and that he is in heaven now.”

Shortly after he died, Cave remembers seeing a flag just before a Heineken Cup game.

“Once an Ulsterman, always an Ulsterman, Nevin Spence,” it read.

The thought resonated with him. “When you play for Ulster, you become part of a club and it is a club you don’t ever leave,” he says. 

“The fact is that Nevin is one of us.

“He’ll always be one of us.”

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