AT the Ulster end-of-season dinner a couple of weeks ago, prop Paddy McAllister collected the award for Personality of the Year... except he hadn’t won it.
McAllister accepted the trophy on behalf of his late friend and team-mate Nevin Spence. In a tragedy which transcended rugby in Ireland, Ravenhill centre Spence, 22, was killed along with his brother Graham and father Noel in a slurry tank accident at the family farm last September.
The award citation read: “Nevin’s presence has been with the Ulster Rugby team throughout this season. Although he is no longer here in person, his spirit continues to inspire and motivate each and every member of the squad.”
As Ulster prepare for Saturday’s RaboDirect Pro12 final against Leinster at Dublin’s RDS Showground, back row forward Chris Henry, who went to the same school as Spence, confirmed that his friend would still be central to the match. “It’s surreal,” said Henry. “It feels like absolutely no time ago at all since he died, it’s still so raw, but at the same time it feels like forever.
“There is no doubt that, even if we maybe don’t talk about him every day, Nevin is in our minds and our thoughts each and every day. He is always in the front of our minds, he was such a big person and such a big part of this team and this squad of players.
“I don’t know if the girls (Spence’s sisters Emma, who survived the tragedy, and Laura) will be there at the final or if they will be watching but winning next week would be a fitting way to honour his memory and honour his family.”
There is no doubt the loss of Spence has pulled what was already a tight Ulster squad even closer together. Following the accident at the start of the season Ulster strung together a 13-match winning streak that took them to the top of the Pro12. In their first outing after Spence’s death, the team put seven tries past the Cardiff Blues. It won’t be so easy on Saturday. The final pits North against South, Belfast against Dublin. Yet, for all the long history and bitter rivalry between the two clubs, the match will be overshadowed by one person who will not – who cannot – be present.
Ulster are the home side for the final, despite it being played at Leinster’s home ground. The 18,000 tickets have been allocated on a 50/50 basis but that won’t stop several thousand ticketless but optimistic Ulster supporters flooding the Ballsbridge area of Dublin. More often than not trips south have ended in heartbreak for them but Ulster managed to get a substantial monkey off their backs in March when they registered their first win over Leinster in Dublin for 14 years.
Chris Henry was just 14 years old when the previous win happened back in 1999 but he is more interested in the immediate future than the distant past and the whole Ulster squad, with an extra week to recover after beating the Scarlets, have been watching videos of the Leinster/Glasgow semi-final with added interest.
“Preparation has been good and I think it helps that we had no game this weekend,” said Henry.
“There were a few bumps and bruises after the Scarlets match. John Afoa has a hamstring which will benefit from an extra week’s rest and I have a problem with my knee after an operation so I haven’t run all week. The whole squad gets a chance to freshen up.
“Glasgow went to Dublin and played with absolutely no fear in that semi-final. They came to play rugby and their off-loading game did some damage, just as it had a year before. If the match had gone on another ten minutes then they would have won it.
“That display gives us confidence that, if we go there with the right attitude and play our own brand of rugby, we can get a result. We have been guilty in the past of not playing for the full 80 minutes, which we will have to do on Saturday. We need to start well and stay focused for the whole match.”
At 6ft 3in Henry is on the large side for an openside flanker and, sure enough, started his professional career at No.8. It was only with the signing of Pedrie Wannenberg and the emergence of Stephen Ferris that Henry shifted into the No.7 jersey on the advice of then coach Brian McLaughlin.
It has proved a canny move. Henry’s outstanding form earned him Ulster’s Player of the Year award last season. All but one of his six Ireland caps have come on the flank and it is only a rampant Sean O’Brien who has prevented him from making more than his six Test appearances. He goes toe to toe with O’Brien on Saturday and, as ever, whoever comes out on top in the maelstrom that is the modern breakdown will have gone a long way towards winning.
“When we beat Leinster back in March they were missing the likes of Brian O’Driscoll and Sean O’Brien,” says Henry. “I don’t know about O’Driscoll but I’d be very surprised if Sean O’Brien isn’t lining up against me on Saturday. I feel that number seven is my position now, I enjoy the breakdown and it will be the key to the final as always.”
The key to the final will, indeed, be the breakdown – that, and the fact that Ulster will effectively take to the field with 16 men in their starting line-up.