Ulster to remember Nevin Spence on an emotional night
Guinness PRO14: Ulster v Scarlets (Friday, Kingspan Stadium, 7.35pm)
THE Ulster rugby fraternity will observe a minute’s silence at the Kingspan Stadium before Friday's PRO14 game with the Scarlets to mark the fifth anniversary of the death of former player Nevin Spence.
The 22-year-old died in an accident at the family farm in Hillsborough which also took the lives of his older brother Graham and father Noel on September 15, 2012.
Ulster scrum-half John Cooney knew Spence well and hopes his new team can mark the occasion with a win over the defending champions which would be dedicated to the memory of a former international team-mate.
“I actually roomed with Nevin when we played together for Ireland’s U19s and U20s and it was heartbreaking when I heard the news of his death so it would be nice to have a big night out for him,” said the 27-year-old.
Cooney joined Ulster from Connacht in the summer after a previous spell with Leinster and has had the unenviable task of replacing the majestic Ruan Pienaar in the number nine jersey.
However, he has risen to the occasion on his first two outings, impressing in the home win over the Toyota Cheetahs from South Africa and then being one of the few stand-out performers in the nervy 21-14 victory over Benetton Rugby last week, earning the man-of-the-match accolade.
Cooney made a try-saving tackle in Treviso and his charge-down that led to Ulster’s third touchdown was one Pienaar would have been proud of.
The Dubliner owns winner’s medals from a Heineken Cup success with Leinster (over Ulster) in 2012 and also two PRO12 triumphs, the second of which came when he was a Connacht player in 2016.
His gongs weren’t secured in ideal circumstances, all of them won as back-up player, but he is revelling in his new role as a starter since his switch to Ulster.
“That’s been huge for me; even in training, each day you get to play with the team and get those connections and it’s nice to be getting 60 to 70 minutes every week rather than just 20 or 25,” he added.
“I was happy enough against the Cheetahs and I had some good touches against Treviso but I think there is a lot more to come as this is a big game where we’ll have to deliver again.
“It’s good to be thrown in at the deep end as you either sink or swim and I’ve been happy with the way I played in the first two games.”
Centre Luke Marshall, a former midfield partner of Nevin Spence, admits tonight will be a poignant occasion but he insists emotions should not be allowed to play on the team’s concentration ahead of a difficult task at hand.
“Remembering Nevin and the tragedy of him, his brother and his dad losing their lives – it’s poignant no matter what time of the year, whether it’s the anniversary or not.” said Marshall.
“It will be emotional, but we have to respect the Scarlets and put our minds on the game and not let it affect us team-wise.
“We know most people will have us as underdogs, they’ve two bonus point wins from their opening two games and they’re the defending champions.
“You just have look at their squad and the quality they have, in the backline particularly, to get an idea of what to expect.
“We’re looking forward to it. We have a point to prove as people are probably doubting us. We need to prove them wrong and go out and get a result.”
WEEK THREE FIXTURES
Friday: Dragons v Connacht (7.30pm), Ulster v Scarlets (7.35pm), Edinburgh v Treviso
Saturday: Kings v Leinster (2.15pm), Ospreys v Munster (3.15pm), Cheetahs v Zebre (7.30pm), Cardiff v Glasgow (7.35pm)