Ulster Rugby is saddened to learn of the passing of long-time member and friend of Portadown Rugby Club, Willie Gribben.
Willie had a long and decorated rugby history dating back to 1958 when he was first introduced to the game at Ballymena Academy, where he played for the school at all age groups before heading off to Stranmillis College to begin teacher training in 1965.
Upon leaving school, Willie joined Ballymena RFC with whom he played from 1965-70 and was selected to play for Ulster during his second season at the club.
In order to take up a teaching position at Edenderry PS, Willie moved to Portadown in September 1970 and joined Portadown RFC. Whilst teaching in Edenderry, Willie began attending rugby coaching courses, and it was during one of these sessions in 1972 that Willie and Ronnie Lamont were by approached by the IRFU Ulster Branch regarding the possibility of introducing rugby to primary school children, as was recommended by the Ulster Branch commissioned Bell Report.
The two men went back to their respective primary schools and began drafting coaching notes before getting together for a number of trial games later that year. In 1973, they introduced more schools to the game, and held the first ever Mini Rugby tournaments in Portadown and Ravenhill. The games continued to develop and are still being played, culminating each year with tournaments at Kingspan Stadium and Queen’s University.
In 1974, Willie introduced Mini Rugby to Portadown RFC and it wasn’t long before many other clubs throughout Ulster and Ireland began to get involved.
In addition to coaching Mini Rugby, Willie also coached Portadown 1st XV for three different spells, as well as North of Ireland / Belfast Harlequins and Ireland U18 Youths. Willie was coach of the Ulster U20s from 1988-92, where he oversaw the development of several high-profile names including David Humphreys and Neil Doak.
In September 2013, Willie took another big step in founding the Portadown Panthers Disability Tag Rugby Group. The team has grown its membership, drawing on players from throughout the Armagh, Banbridge & Craigavon Council area.
In recognition for his outstanding services to volunteering, Willie was awarded the SONI Community Rugby Champion Award, which was presented at the Ulster Rugby awards dinner in May 2016. Willie was chosen from a shortlist of four exceptional volunteers who dedicated so much of their time to support community rugby and took home the coveted award along with a £1,000 bursary for his club.
The funeral service will be held at 2pm on Monday 25 November at Seagoe Parish Church in Portadown.
Ulster Rugby extends its deepest condolences to Willie’s wife, Edna and the Gribben family at this time.