'We all wear Nevin's name in our hearts'
Nick Williams weighs 260lb, a heaving, intimidating mass of contradictions.
So often a bludgeoning beast on the field, he can be a blubbering baby off it, particularly if he is playing with his 18-month-old daughter.
Able to swat similarly beefed up and supplement-enhanced opponents aside with the often comic effect of a cartoon giant, Williams is equally capable of crumbling in meek submission if watching an umpteenth re-run of 'The Lion King'.
Humility comes easy to the marauding Kiwi No 8, not to mention his provincial colleagues, particularly viewed through the prism of such a traumatic backdrop to their season's toils.
As Williams and Ulster maintain their physically brutal assault on the RaboDirect Pro12 title, which culminates on Saturday night in the RDS against Leinster, he chose a personal moment of redemption at the league's recent awards night to reveal the heartache that is driving this team on.
It is just over eight months since Ulster colleague Nevin Spence, as well as his brother Graham and father Noel, died in the most unimaginable fashion on their family farm.
As Williams collected his Pro12 Player of the Year award in Clontarf Castle – an inevitable consequence of an irrepressible sequence of performances that included no less than seven man of the match gongs – he immediately recalled an absent friend.
"We all wear Nevin's name in our hearts and on our sleeves," said the 29-year-old back-row behemoth.
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Later backstage, speaking exclusively to the Irish Independent, the softly spoken Williams admitted that the spirit of Spence, who was a rising star in Irish rugby, continues to course through the squad.
"He's like one of our angel supporters at the moment," says a visibly moved Williams. "It was such a big loss. We haven't wanted to use it or exploit it but it has always been in the back of our minds."
When Ireland congregated to play Fiji last November in Limerick, the large Ulster contingent who lined out were markedly unprepared to deal with tragedy; clearly, it was too raw at the time.
Yet as the season has continued, Ulster have avoided any descent into cheap sentimentality and allowed the healing process to develop at its own pace, all the while conscious of the Spence family wishes.
A fortnight ago, Williams took an eager part on the coaching side when Ulster player Paddy McAllister entered a side in the Carrick Sevens – carrying the poignant acronym NGN (Nevin, Graham, Noel) – and promptly won it.
One senses that were Ulster to carry off the more potent silverware in the form of a league title, there would be a magnificent outpouring of collective emotion from this intensely united group.
"Winning a trophy would be special for all of us," says the former Auckland Blues player, who, after difficult spells at Munster and Aironi, has finally settled in the northern hemisphere.
"I'm enjoying Belfast," he enthuses. "We're a tight-knit group. The tragedy has brought everyone together even tighter but we've always been very close together, I feel."
For Williams himself, linking up with Ulster coach Mark Anscombe, the man who first mined the extraordinary teenage talent at North Harbour, has acquired Damascene dimensions.
His stint at Munster never worked out, with wildly differing tales regarding his off-field activities, while a year-long spell in Aironi wasn't much better – as Ian Rush once acutely averred, it was like living in a foreign country.
Williams feels he finally belongs in Belfast – "it's even more welcoming than back home" – and the past is a different place as far as he is concerned. Even with Munster in dire need of some ball-carrying ballast, Williams can't accommodate regret.
"Munster is done and gone," he insists. "Wiped from the memory bank. For whatever reasons, form and injury, it didn't work out for me.
"But that's all in the past. Now I'm concentrating on the present and future."
A settled family life obviously helps – his Twitter account proclaims "God, family and work" as his motivational triptych – and his destructive displays on the field have offered a neat symmetry to his serenity off it.
"It's a part of my game, ball-carrying and all that goes with it, that I like to think I pride myself on. There are a lot of things you can work on and build up and for me this is one of them.
"I enjoy carrying the ball, but it wouldn't happen if it wasn't for the things the other guys are doing to make it possible. And I want to make sure that all the parts of my game are improving all the time, I don't want to be a one-trick pony."
His caution is well-advised; while he has managed to rampage successfully throughout the Pro12, his exertions in Europe have not always been as successful.
The flat exit in Twickenham against Saracens still haunts this side, hence their desire to ensure that their league campaign can end with silverware, with Saturday's final appearance a clear motivation.
"Even before I arrived in Belfast, I'd played against the boys and the Ravenhill crowd were unbelievable even then. I'm just happy to be putting in a shift for those guys because they back us so much.
"We obviously know ourselves that winning a trophy is the pinnacle of anyone's rugby career. We owe it to our fans, our families and ourselves to win a trophy this season and we are desperate to do so.
"We have a lot of young players coming up together in this team and the competition for places is intense. It's like they say, transition brings out the best in teams.
"The opposition are never 100pc with what we're trying to do because we're always changing, always pushing each other to do well.
"We want to build our own status here as a champion team. Munster and Leinster have done that. We want to achieve things as well."
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