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‘Hinch Pay Tribute To Spence Family

‘Hinch Pay Tribute To Spence Family

Ballynahinch RFC media officer and well-known photographer John Dickson has written a heart-warming tribute to Nevin and Graham Spence, who both played with distinction for the club in recent years. The brothers tragically lost their lives alongside their father Noel in an accident on the family farm last Saturday.

The tragic events that occurred on the Spence family farm at the weekend has left the entire local community and Ballynahinch Rugby Club in a state of numbed shock.

Noel Spence and his two sons Graham and Nevin lost their lives in a farming accident while attempting to save each other on Saturday evening.

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Noel, Graham and Nevin Spence

The Spence family are highly respected throughout the locality, and are well known for their contribution to the world of farming, rugby, art and the Baptist Church community.

It is impossible for me to put together the words that would accurately describe the sheer enormity of this tragedy, and the effect it has had on our club and community and most importantly the Spence family.

Both Nevin and his elder brother Graham played rugby for Ballynahinch. Graham progressed through the youth ranks at the club and was well regarded by both players and coaches.

Originally he played at scrum half but as he grew bigger and stronger he was moved to the centre where the famous ‘Spence hand-off’ was first perfected.

He moved up to age grade level on the Under-20 side and then into the adult rugby section where he played in the senior squad.

Just as his promising rugby career was burgeoning his dad called a halt to his Saturday afternoon activities. He had plenty of work for him to do on the farm.

‘Nev’, as he is known by his friends, took a different route. Playing football in the early years was his passion and he was capped at Under-16 level by Northern Ireland. Manchester City were interested in signing Nev to become a professional, but his mum Essie, a school teacher, encouraged him to go to Wallace High School where he was introduced to rugby football.

Being a natural athlete, Nev’s potential was quickly harnessed by coach Derek Suffern who brought him through and onto the first team. The Schools Senior Cup is the stand out competition of Ulster Schools rugby and Nev helped his Wallace side reach the semi-final by scoring a hat trick of tries against BRA in the quarter-final.

The semi-final was played at Ravenhill where the school defeated Portora to set up a St. Patrick’s Day clash with RBAI. He found himself on the losing side that afternoon but Ravenhill had seen its first glance of the talent to come.
Ulster Schools and Irish Schools honours followed as the young rugby star began to emerge.

Ulster Rugby had identified his potential and Nev was awarded a place in the Ulster Rugby Academy and joined Ballynahinch Rugby Club under the watchful eyes of his schools coach Derek Suffern.

It was at this stage that ‘Hinch began to see his talent emerge. With his barnstorming runs up the pitch, he had great feet and left defenders grasping in mid air.

The number of photographs I have of Nevin fending off players as he skipped past them is countless, and of course his finishing was supreme. Once he found a gap he was through it and away.

When Brian McLaughlin took over as Ulster head coach, he knew the calibre of player he had and it was not long until Nev was training with the senior side along with fellow centres Paddy Wallace and Darren Cave.

The rest is now history, Nev made his debut for Ulster against the Ospreys in 2010 and represented the province on 42 occasions. He played on the wing and at centre and quickly became a crowd favorite.

The Irish national management brought Nev into their set-up and he played for the Ireland Wolfhounds, and took part in the Six Nations training camps with the senior squad.

In the past few days many have commented about Nev’s possible selection for Ireland, but when you have the likes of Brian O’Driscoll commenting on Twitter about Nevin being his most likely replacement, I think that just says it all.

Back at ‘Hinch, Nev was very much involved in the success of the club in 2009 – scoring vital tries in the Ulster Senior Cup final against Ballymena and again in the All-Ireland League Division 2 play-off final in Limerick against UCC.

If Nev was not playing because of Ulster duty he was always at Ballymacarn Park, Ballynahinch’s home ground, on match day to cheer the lads on, he was a team player through and through.

While playing for Ulster Nev’s highlight was taking to the field for the quarter-final of the Heineken Cup against Northampton Saints in 2011.

Last season injury prevented him from taking part in the early part of the season but once back up to speed he was pushing hard for a place in the starting 23.

Ulster had a memorable season although Nev was disappointed not to make the starting team for the Heineken Cup final, travelling to Twickenham on May 19 as 24th man.

During the summer months he underwent surgery to fix a shoulder problem and last Friday he completed his rehabilitation, taking to the field to play for Ulster Ravens against Munster ‘A’.

Everyone who witnessed that game was fully convinced that Nev was back with a bang. He tackled, turned over ball and made ground on numerous occasions, but he also fired two kicks into touch on the full.

After the game, Nev made an assessment of his performance – ‘Happy enough with the defence and attack, but think I will give my kicking game a miss next week!’

Modest, shy, self-effacing, humble, kind, caring, honest, these are all words which could be used to describe Nev.

He was much more than a rugby player. Nev had many interests and friends outside the game. He was heavily involved in Ballynahinch Baptist Church and helped out on the family farm from time to time.

It was when the Spence clan gathered together that you got to see the genuine love and affection they had for one another. Nev and his sister Emma bantered each other day and night, Graham would roll his eyes while mum and dad would laugh.

Everyone will have their own memories of Noel, Graham and Nevin and I will share with you my last memory of them.

Just two weeks ago I visited the family farm to do photoshoot with Nev. It was for the Dairy Council and it involved him standing with cows in a field. That alone was a cause of much amusement because Nev was classed by the family as ‘just a part-time milker.’

It was a lovely afternoon on the Drumlough Road, as usual I was running late when I arrived into the yard in my new yellow car.

As I stepped out all I could hear was Noel laughing at the colour and size of the car. A crushing hand shake and more laughter followed. Nev soon appeared then Emma followed by her mum, next the milk tanker driver was brought around and they all debated the pros and cons of the car and its colour and its suitability for someone of large build.

After fifteen minutes of good craic had passed, Nev remembered that Graham had been patiently waiting around the road with the cows and we quickly jumped into his car to meet up with him.

When we arrived, Nev took heaps of abuse from Graham for being a ‘gentleman farmer’, just turning up for a photograph then flying off again without doing a hand’s turn!

It was all great craic and the photographs I took of Nev that day are amongst my favorites, he looked really happy and despite the banter and hassle from Graham he did pose very well.

The funerals will be held this Wednesday at 2pm at Ballynahinch Baptist Church. The weeks and months ahead are going to be tough for the Spence family, our club will help and support them in whatever way we can.

The thoughts and prayers of Ballynahinch Rugby Club go to Nev’s mum Essie, sisters Laura and Emma, and their family circle.

John Dickson, Ballynahinch RFC

Spence Funeral Arrangements: There will be a thanksgiving service on Wednesday for Noel, Graham and Nevin Spence at Ballynahinch Baptist Church on Lisburn Road at 2pm.

A car park has been set up at Langley Road playing fields close to the church, this can be accessed from the Magheraknock Road, Please follow the signs which will direct you towards the church.

The High School, Ballynahinch pitches will be available for parking from 11.30am, and parking will also be available throughout the town at various car parks.

Please note that Ballynahinch Baptist Church car park will be unavailable at this time. All cars are to park at the car park provided.

In light of the expected large turnout for the Spence family funeral on Wednesday, Ballynahinch RFC will be opening their club at 4pm, after the committal.

The Ballynahinch RFC President, Chairman and Club Council would like to extend an invite to the rugby fraternity and wider sporting community to join them in the clubhouse for light refreshments, once the funeral proceedings have concluded.