ABSOLUTELY NO GOOD can ever be taken from the tragedy which befell Nevin Spence and his family.
But what a ground-shaking event like death can do, is make you realise just how good you actually have it in life.
Suddenly, what you once thought were everyday pressures either become unimportant, or things to be cherished as they make you feel alive.
A win, a defeat, a knock on, a missed tackle. Suddenly, none of these are the be all and end all for Ulster Rugby players.
“It’s obviously tough to put that last couple of weeks into words.” Says captain Johann Muller. “It’s been really tough. It’s been tough for everybody involved, I think for the whole rugby community.”
And yet, Ulster appear to be a group unwilling wallow anywhere close to self pity. If Muller uses the word ‘tough’ then perhaps he could also apply it to his club’s mental state. The horrific events of September 15 rocked them, but did not dent any confidence. It made them take stock according to Muller, as he continued by saying:
“But the only thing we know, as rugby players, is how to train hard, how to play rugby, how to enjoy each other’s company and put a smile on your face by doing what you love.
“That’s exactly what we aim to do. Even though it was really tough, that’s a thing we have to fall back onto; playing rugby and enjoying life. It makes you realise how fortunate you are to put a jersey over your head and be able to play this wonderful game.”
In their first outing after their team-mate’s funeral, Ulster looked every inch a side playing without a hint of pressure.
“It was brilliant to see the way the guys played against Cardiff. Especially first time back after the last couple of really tough weeks to see how the boys played was really encouraging.”
Encouraging? They ran in seven tries in a 19-48 away win.
Granted, their opponents were a Blues side greatly weakened from last season, but this was the northern province’s first run of the season with something approaching their full-strength squad. You had to look closely to find the ring rust.
Since then, they put in a commanding display at home to Connacht, but ultimately lacked the cutting edge to take all five, rather than four points. After finishing second in the Heineken Cup, they are expected to perform and expected to be clinical.
“The expectation is the thing that will be there the most; both from a player’s and supporter’s point of view. People expect you to get back to that – I just wish it was that easy.” Muller says as he looks down on TheScore.ie with a smile.
“It’s not just like walking back into the Heineken Cup final again. There is a huge amount of hard work that goes into it. You need some luck, a huge amount of luck - I think Leinster can tell you that after their semi-final last year.”
‘Right here, right now’
Far from being chastened by the experience of their final demolition at the hands of Leinster, Muller says the experience of their day in Twickenham has only strengthened their resolve to return to the biggest stage.
“The hunger within the squad is greater than it’s ever been. Experiencing those things last year, we want to experience it again. but this year we want to go one step better.” He says, but with an important caveat. “In saying that, people don’t realise; Heineken Cup rugby is really tough. I don’t think people realise that.”
If progressing from the pool is Ulster’s new benchmark, they could have been offered an easier route than meeting Northampton, their predecessors as European runners-up, the ever-stubborn Castres and a trip to Glasgow in December.
From the Springbok, though, you never sense a wish to take the easy route.
“It’s a whole new year, a new challenge, a new squad, a new coach. So the challenge is right there for us to play well week in, and week out and look after the ‘right heres’ and ‘right nows’.”