Thursday 27 June 2019

Heaven on earth, but there's better to come

John O'Brien

ALL week Andrew Trimble had been a tightly-coiled spring of nervous energy. He thought of what Sunday would bring; Wales and his first start in the Six Nations. His head throbbed with a thousand different questions. How would it feel to stand to attention for the national anthem at Lansdowne Road and lock shoulders with his team-mates for Ireland's Call? Would his body be shak

ALL week Andrew Trimble had been a tightly-coiled spring of nervous energy. He thought of what Sunday would bring; Wales and his first start in the Six Nations. His head throbbed with a thousand different questions. How would it feel to stand to attention for the national anthem at Lansdowne Road and lock shoulders with his team-mates for Ireland's Call? Would his body be shaking with fear? Would his stomach be tying itself up in knots?

He tried to put it out of his mind, but the thoughts kept coming in waves. He tried to force himself not to be nervous, but the anxiety only gripped him tighter.

Sunday finally came and an hour before kick-off he reached the sanctuary of the dressing-room. He knew he'd be alright then. He sat down in a quiet corner, reached inside his bag and took out his favourite book: the Bible. He turned the pages until he found his favourite passage, Psalm 84, and started to read.

How amiable are thy tabernacles, O Lord of hosts!

My soul longeth, yea, even fainteth for the courts of the Lord: my heart and my flesh crieth out for the living God.

Yea, the sparrow hath found an house, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, even thine altars, O Lord of hosts, my King, and my God.

Blessed are they that dwell in my house: they will be still praising thee. Selah.

He likes those words because it means he can give God glory before he goes out to play and it helps him gain perspective before he reaches the pitch. He reads and he knows that no matter the size of the occasion, he will never be overwhelmed. Afterwards he knows he'll still be saved. He'll still have his faith. Spend five minutes in Trimble's company and you'll know nothing is more important.

"There's a line in Psalm 84 that says it's better one day in the Lord's court than a thousand elsewhere," he says. "That's the heart of it for me. It makes me think that playing at Lansdowne Road is absolutely brilliant, a dream come true, and I'm going to love every minute of it. But being in the presence of the Lord, being in Heaven, is going to be a thousand times more amazing. So it makes me excited about playing and even more excited about going to Heaven someday."

Last week's game didn't start as he would have envisaged. After nine minutes Wales were leading and, worse, their try had come when Matthew Watkins chipped into the 22 and Trimble failed to deal with an awkward bounce. Though no blame could reasonably be attached to him, Trimble still had to ask himself the hard question. Could he have done more to prevent it?

"It wasn't what you wanted in your first Six Nations start," he says. "I thought to myself I could have held a little more depth and got there a bit quicker. But I didn't want it to affect my confidence either. I made a point of saying to myself like who cares, that try's gone, concentrate on what's to come. I remember consciously pulling up my socks and saying, right, let's make up for it and I think it's important to have that mindset and get on with it."

'I can see myself running towards the full-back and it's like why didn't I chip the ball over his head and run for the try'

Trimble's mindset is a fascinating place to visit and spend a little time. His coach at Ulster, Mark McCall, says he has never seen a player bursting with so much self-belief. It wasn't always so. Two years ago McCall took Trimble out of the Ulster academy and handed him a development contract. Suddenly he was sharing a dressing-room with players he had once idolised and he felt frightened, like a grey seal swimming in a sea of sharks.

But McCall could see two things in Trimble. The kid could play rugby and he had this intense Christian faith and wasn't afraid to display it in public. They respected him for that. Trimble's rugby career may have come far in a short space of time but he will remind you that before he was a successful rugby player, he was a Christian with an absolute conviction that Jesus died on the Cross so that all men could be saved. How he performs on the field is merely an extension of that belief.

There was a moment last week mid-way through the first-half. Ireland are trailing 5-3 and the game is still very much in the balance. Then Ireland steal the ball from a Welsh line-out and from deep inside his own half Trimble breaks three tackles before going to ground inside Welsh territory. When the ball is fished back to Ronan O'Gara, the out-half finds touch near the Welsh line and suddenly Ireland have the momentum.

Lying in bed that night Trimble will replay the move repeatedly in his head. Maybe it helped swing the game, but he wasn't entirely happy. "I can see myself running towards the full-back and it's like why didn't I chip the ball over his head and run in for the try under the posts. Imagine that." He laughs, but it is clear he is not being flippant. "Ach," he says, "It's like that might be the only chance you get in the game, so you want to make the most of it."

Making the most of it. It is what Andrew Trimble is about.

HE turned 21 last October, but already it has been a remarkable journey. He thinks of this time 12 months ago. He was playing in the All-Ireland League for Ballymena and looking forward to the under-21 World Cup in Argentina where he would emerge as Ireland's player of the tournament. Of course, he thought that would be the highlight of his year.

At that stage he was still emerging from his shell. McCall had first seen Trimble when he was Ireland under-21 coach in 2003. Talent was immediately apparent but he was introverted and that needed to be addressed. Trimble felt comfortable and relaxed among his peers. Too comfortable, thought McCall. He needed to be challenged. For his part Trimble couldn't have agreed more.

"Back then I would have fairly quiet," Trimble says. "Amongst my friends I was myself but around the rugby boys I was very shy. Mark identified that. He wanted me to be in a rugby environment as much as possible. I thought great. That's what you need. From an early age you just have to be thrown in at the deep-end. Maybe that doesn't work out for everybody but it's the way they do it in the southern hemisphere. I know Ulster A isn't the Super 12 but it's the same principle."

It was still a giant step, though. He remembers his first day at training. Turning up with the wrong gear was bad enough, but walking into the dressing-room and taking Rod Moore's spot put the tin hat on it. Naturally, the giant Australian prop told him where to go and Trimble had to find his own place down the food chain. "Wow," he thought to himself. "Great start."

Three years earlier he'd already had a little taste. He'd just left Coleraine Inst and he was drafted in to play a game for Ulster A at Enniskillen. He looked around and saw guys he'd only ever seen on television: Jonny Bell, Bryn Cunningham, Kieran Campbell, Gary Longwell, Roger Wilson, Matt Sexton, Robbie Kempson, Simon Best.

David Humphreys was there too, getting match practice for an upcoming game for the Barbarians. A few years earlier, following Ulster's European Cup final success, Trimble's girlfriend had asked Humphreys to sign a framed picture. "To Andrew - all the best in your rugby career," he wrote. When Humphreys asked him about it before the game, Trimble feigned ignorance. A confession would have been far too embarrassing.

What struck McCall was how Trimble seemed to gravitate towards the older pros, Humphreys in particular. In a way that was no surprise for Humphreys, like Trimble, is a committed Christian. They don't talk about it all that much, he says. Humphreys practices his beliefs in a way that is quiet and very personal. Trimble's approach is radically different.

"The way I see it, because I have this talent, I can use it. Before, you wouldn't have wanted to talk to me. Now I've got this extra string to my bow, you know, and this guy from the newspaper wants to interview me. So I'm going to tell him about the Lord Jesus because it's the most important thing you can know. I don't know if anyone's ever died for you but Jesus died on the Cross for me and knowing that is very special."

He can't say in particular where his faith came from. It was always there. There was no sudden epiphany or Damascene conversion. Unlike Jason Robinson, the former England captain, he didn't come from a broken family and his life never plunged beneath a dark cloud of alcohol and dysfunctional relationships before he saw the path of salvation. He was just a normal kid doing normal things, but with an underlying sense that his life wasn't giving him fulfilment.

In his second last year at Coleraine Inst, he met people from the local Christian Union and it changed his life. He noticed they had things he didn't have: serenity and a connection with God that he knew was missing from his own life. "That's when I realised I wasn't living my life the way I needed to. A few things had got in the way of my relationship with God. I wasn't a Christian and I don't believe I was saved."

What troubles him is the knowledge that although his mother is a Christian too, his father, Maurice, is a non-believer

He knows what he says might sound wishy-washy and there are people who think he must be part of some kind of cult, but he's never minded that. What troubles him is the knowledge that although his mother is a Christian too, his father, Maurice, is a non-believer. It hurts him because the bond between them is so strong: it was his father who took him to see his first international at Lansdowne Road in 1992, his father who took him to see Ulster's glorious march to the European title in 1999, his father who gave him his love of rugby and kick-started his career.

At school, Trimble excelled at mathematics and science and when he left he chose to study physics at Queen's University. Before rugby came calling, his parents were hopeful that he would emerge with a good degree and prospects of a lucrative career. How ironic, he thinks, that someone with his faith should have been drawn to scientific pursuits with their stubborn insistence on facts and proven foundations.

So he did what he had to do. He quit after a year and signed up instead to study Theology at Dunmurry Bible College in Belfast. It will take him five years to finish, he thinks, but it will be worth it. For the last two years he has spent two weeks in the summer in some of the poorest townships in South Africa, playing rugby and telling the kids about his faith. Life, he says, has never felt more fulfilling.

He knows too, though, that being so vocal about his faith brings added pressure. When Ulster travelled to Scotland to play the Borders in the Celtic League last October, Trimble received a yellow card for what was deemed a dangerous tackle. His girlfriend was watching at home on television and told him afterwards of the shock in the commentator's voice, of how this Bible College student could have committed such a heinous act. He laughed when she told him.

"I thought it was funny but I know if I mess up I'll get stuff like that. Playing sport we've all got a competitive edge and you need to have it. If I forget myself even for a second and let myself down I know there'll be people who'll jump on that. And that's a shame because I'm not perfect. Only Jesus was perfect."

His game is about pace and power and his faith will never change that. In an Ulster team dripping with youthful talent, Trimble has been a shining beacon though they see him as a game-breaking outside centre whereas Ireland's need is greater on the wing. So be it. He knows he isn't about to dislodge the one they call BOD from the No.13 position anytime soon. If he is to be camped on the wing that, he reasons, is what God wants.

Watch the videos and it is easy to see what the Ulster boys see, though. Here he is in the Heineken Cup against Biarritz breaking through tackle after tackle to set his team on the attack. There he is in the dying moments against Saracens, his team a point behind, bursting into the 22 and earning his side a penalty under the posts. "Just like he's been doing all season," blurts the commentator.

Sometimes he has to pinch himself to make sure it is all happening, that God has blessed him in this way. This evening he'll wander back to Dublin after a few days off in Belfast and the build-up to Scotland on Saturday will start eating at his mind again. Last week the squad sat down together and watched Scotland's heroic defeat of England at Murrayfield and couldn't help but be impressed.

"Scotland were so up for it. You could tell with the flamethrowers and all the guys dancing on the pitch beforehand that it was a huge deal for them. They wanted desperately to win, certainly much more than England did and they were awesome in defence.

"We'll have to do a fair bit of analysis, try to find a weak point where we might be able to break them down." The smile on his face tells you that however difficult he thinks it will be, however great the challenge, somehow He always finds a way.

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