Four years ago today Ulster Rugby, their fans, followers and the entire rugby community in Ireland experienced a tragedy unlike anything which had afflicted the game in this country.
On September 15th 2012 Ulster's incredibly promising centre Nevin Spence, his father Noel and brother Graham died when they were overcome by fumes in a slurry pit in an accident on the family farm. According to reports, Nevin died while attempting to save his father and brother.
The loss of Spence and the two other members of his immediate family was a loss which hit Ulster Rugby and his local community hard. The entire Ulster squad attended the funeral, with Nevin Spence's coffin carried into Ballynahinch Baptist Church by six of his teammates draped in the white jersey he wore 42 times over the previous two seasons.
Spence was a terrifically talented rugby player and, to some, he was considered to be the heir apparent to Brian O'Driscoll's number 13 jersey in the green of Ireland. So talented was he that had he contemplated a career with the spherical ball, he had options there too having represented the Northern Irish U-16 side. Manchester City, on more than one occassion, invited the teenage Spence to a trial.
Rugby was his game though.
— Rory Best (@RoryBest2) November 30, 2014
Spence graduated from schools rugby to the AIL with Ballynahinch but it wasn't long before Ulster scouts noticed his talents. He was invited to join the senior Ulster panel and won his first cap with the province shortly thereafter. A strong, direct runner with an eye for a gap, Spence's potential earned him a call-up to the Ireland U-20's for the Junior World Cup.
He was also capped by the Irish Wolfhounds and, in the February prior to his passing, he was invited to train with the senior Ireland squad. His influence in the Ulster side was increasing, too. Spence had formed a fine partnership with Darren Cave in Ulster's midfield and he was beginning to make his mark in the domestic and European game. Rarely was this more apparent than in Spence's finishing of 19-phase move away to Bath.
The incredibly tragic loss of Spence and two members of his family left aftershocks throughout the rugby world. Some of the biggest names in the game, Dan Carter included, paid tribute to Spence and condolences to his family. After the season in which he died, Ulster officially named Spence as their Personality of the Season.
Nevin’s presence has been with the Ulster Rugby team throughout this season. Although he is no longer here in person, his spirit continues to inspire and motivate each and every member of the squad.
Ulster have since opened The Nevin Spence Centre at Kingspan Stadium, an education and heritage centre exhibiting the proud history of Ulster Rugby dedicated to the memory of their former player.
By now, four years after his passing, Spence would have been 26 years old and in all likelihood would have a collection of senior Irish caps to his name but Spence's fans, friends and family should be consoled by the sheer amount of goodwill directed to the Ulsterman.
He might be gone, but Nevin Spence's echo continues to this very day.