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Ulster rugby fans pay tribute to Nevin Spence

THEY had streamed through the gates of Ravenhill many times before, but never for an occasion like this.

Ulster Rugby supporters usually bounce into the atmospheric east Belfast ground brimming with excitement ahead of a big match.

Today they entered at solemn pace; hearts full of sorrow, faces etched in disbelief.

Those who had watched Nevin Spence's rising star burn brightly on the Ravenhill turf, returned to pay their respects, struggling to comprehend that it had been so cruelly and suddenly extinguished.

Their tributes were not for Nevin alone, with brother Graham and father Noel also in the thoughts of fans who left flowers, hung shirts and scarves and signed the books of condolence for all three victims of Saturday's accident at the Spence family farm.

Some wept openly, others fell into the arms of friends in search of comfort.

All day the sea of tributes grew at the famous old Memorial Clock end.

Richard Tate knew Nevin from childhood growing up in Ballynahinch. They went to youth club together and church.

"He was such a great guy," he said, his voiced cracked with emotion.

"Everyone is in complete shock.

"He was unbelievable, a really talented fellow. He had his whole life ahead of him.

"He would have played for Ireland and he would have done a great job for Ireland." Those sentiments were encapsulated in many of the written messages left at pitchside.

One simply read: "Sleep tight Nevin, proud to have seen you play." Among the many red and white Ulster shirts tied to the fence were jerseys from Spence's earlier playing days.

A fellow past pupil at Wallace High School had pinned up the school kit, along with a five-year-old folded newspaper article, shielded from the elements in a plastic file, that reported on Spence scoring a hat-trick of tries in a Schools' Cup victory.

Philip Gregg, chairman of Ballynahinch RFC - where both Nevin and Graham played, travelled to the ground to add his club's shirt to the collage.

"The club is in total shock, just like the community," he said.

"I think the feeling there is mainly for the Spence family.

"What most people don't realise is that Graham also played rugby. Graham played for us, came through the youth system, then came up through the under 20s and even played as high as the second XV.

"He was a good player too." Mr Gregg said it was clear from an early age that Nevin was a potential great of the game.

"It was very obvious that Nevin had a rugby ability beyond those in normal club rugby," he said.

"He was very dedicated, he was a very physical player on the pitch but yet a very humble and genuine guy off the pitch.

"From the coach's point of view he was your perfect player because he wanted to learn and just wanted to absorb the knowledge and he very much wanted to be a team man - he was always a team man."

Despite his career in the professional ranks, Mr Gregg said Nevin was always a Ballynahinch man through and through.

"If Nevin was playing for Ulster on Friday night he would still be at Ballynahinch on the Saturday afternoon," he said.

As well as leaving tributes at the pitch, supporters penned their own thoughts and prayers in two books of condolence inside the offices of Ulster Rugby.

In a gesture typical of the sport, tea, coffee and biscuits were laid on for all those who felt compelled to come along.

There were many well known faces. Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness visited to sign, as did his erstwhile ministerial colleague at Stormont, former First Minister Ian Paisley.

Irish Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore and Northern Ireland Secretary of State Theresa Villiers also came to pay their respects.

But the majority of those who made the unscheduled Monday trip to Ravenhill were the fans who pack the stands and terraces for Friday night matches.

Joan Young used to sell programmes at the turnstiles of Ravenhill.

"It's just so awful," she said.

Carol McAdam, who lives close to the ground, said it would take a long time before Ravenhill was the same again.

"It's a very sad occasion," she said.

"I am a keen Ulster supporter and just think it's an awful loss of life.

"I didn't know the guy personally but you sort of feel part of the family with the Ulster team."

Irish Independent