Ulster’s tight bond a tribute to Nevin

There is no textbook approach to dealing with an unimaginable tragedy when you are part of a sports team.

There are no predictable consequences. Each situation is unique.

It tends to be a no-win situation for the leadership group in these scenarios. The last thing you want to do is trivialise what has happened. There is a keen desire to commemorate but the sensitivities are such that you can never use the situation graphically, publicly, as a motivational tool.

Invariably though, on a private level, the yearning to pay tribute means that it can be. That pressure can also be crippling. Or perhaps, such is the perspective the tragedy provides that the desire to win a game is never the same. Conversely, that perspective can free the mind too.

One thinks of the impact the Hillsborough disaster had on Liverpool FC or the premature deaths of Paul McGirr, Cormac McAnallen and Michaela Harte had on the pitch for Tyrone GAA. Some wins, some losses. In the wake of the greatest loss of all.

In the fortnight that followed the death of Nevin Spence in a farm accident that also claimed the lives of his father Noel and brother Graham, his friends and team-mates in the Ulster camp were racked with doubt.

They knew what they wanted to do but would they be able? “It was a really tough time when that happened” says Andrew Trimble. “All the boys found it difficult. I felt we dealt with it quite well, or we are dealing with it quite well”, he corrected, reflecting the fact that it is an ongoing process.

“We all knew Nev… we all had similar experiences of spending time with him so we can all identify with each other in what we’re all going through.

“I think that has helped to bring us all quite close, which helps us on the pitch as well.

“I suppose whenever you reflect upon it, it certainly gives you a bit of perspective. It helps you realise what’s important, what it’s all about really.

“I was having this chat with one or two or the boys. When we played Cardiff, which was the first game we played after the tragedy, we just didn’t know what would happen on the pitch.

“We thought there was a chance we’d go out and our hearts wouldn’t be in it because of that perspective and thinking about Nev. There was also a chance that we could go out there and absolutely blow them away because he meant so much to us and that was what he would want. The latter happened but it was just hard to know what way it was going to go.”

They have a tighter bond than ever now, which is as fitting an honour as Spence might have wanted. Along with Johann Muller, Rory Best, Stephen Ferris and Paddy Wallace, Trimble is one of those who sets the tone in the camp.

Despite having made his international debut as a substitute for the injured Brian O’Driscoll against Australia this time seven years ago, and amassed 11 tries in his 48 caps, Trimble does not have a similar leadership role within the Ireland squad.

“I’ve been there a while but I’ve been in and out a few times. For me, it’s first things first, trying to make sure I get picked and then whatever I can do, whatever I can bring (I will).

“I feel like with Ulster, I bring a lot to the game and to the Ulster team because I’m there consistently. I know the way we work, the way we tick. I know the way to make our team perform better. I know what I can provide to make that happen. It’s important then that I move on and make sure that’s the case for Ireland as well. It’s something I look forward to. Because there is such competition for places, I want to make sure I’m playing. I want to get on the pitch because I can’t do anything unless I’m on the pitch.”

Confidence is high though as a result of Ulster’s stunning form in the Heineken Cup and RaboDirect Pro12. Not even a dreadful round of golf at their Carton House base on Wednesday could shake the positive aura Trimble currently possesses.

And that is good to hear because Ireland are going to need positivity against South Africa, in what will be their first game since being trounced 60-0 by New Zealand in Hamilton on June 23. They went agonisingly close to pulling off an historic victory in Christchurch seven days previously and that only served to magnify the horror of what occurred in the final test.

They came together for a two-day training camp in September and resolved to put things right, but Trimble is still not sure why Ireland collapsed so appallingly.

“I don’t think I can really put my finger on it. Quite a few things didn’t go our way and unfortunately New Zealand were outstanding that day. You have to be at your best to have a chance of beating them and in that third test, we weren’t anywhere near that, so that’s what happens.”

The result is that there is pressure on them now. Particularly, there is pressure on their Grand Slam-winning coach, Declan Kidney. The team needs victories to halt a slide in the world rankings that if it continued, would affect their seeding in the 2015 World Cup. They also need to start winning again. Full stop.

For all the external pressures though, it is their own desire to do much better that is the most significant factor, according to Trimble.

“When you put on a green shirt, it’s not something you’re proud of to get beat 60-0 by the All Blacks. It’s embarrassing. You don’t want to be part of that, to be responsible for that sort of performance and result.

“I think we all are a lot more ambitious than that tour would suggest so a lot of the pressure comes from us, the coaches, the players and all the staff. We want to perform better and do ourselves justice.

“It’s disappointing when you go out on the pitch and don’t do yourself justice. I think we’re a far better side than we showed in that third test and hopefully we’ll get a chance over the next few weeks to show how good we are.”

For some bizarre reason, the three-match Guinness Series will get under way with the sternest examination against South Africa next Saturday.

Argentina have proven very difficult opposition for Ireland over the years but to be taking on southern hemisphere opposition in your first game coming off a 60-point hiding isn’t ideal. Yet it’s the nature of professional sportspeople to be positive.

“It doesn’t get much tougher,” Trimble concedes. “The Springboks is always a big challenge. The (New Zealand) tour was very disappointing, things didn’t go our way and it wasn’t a great experience to be part of it. You want to get back involved and you want another big challenge so hopefully you can get your confidence up again and feel like you’re back on the right track.”

There is no mystery surrounding what South Africa will bring to the table. “Physicality is one enormous challenge they present. Whenever you play the Springboks, if you get your physicality right you’re 90% there... also their kicking game is fairly significant. Those are two big areas we need to look at.”

Bryan Habana isn’t making the journey due to injury but JP Pietersen is fit and returns to the squad. It is symptomatic of the options available to the tourists.

But Trimble knows what real adversity is, both on and off the field. He is relishing the opportunity of pitching himself against the best South Africa can offer.

“I really enjoy a bit of rough-and-tumble. I enjoy getting stuck in. Whenever you’re stuck on the wing, sometimes you don’t get that many opportunities, but whenever you do, you’ve got to make that count.”

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