Wednesday 20 March 2019

Paddy Jackson: Rugby player knows he can depend on family - no matter what the future holds

Ireland and Ulster rugby player Paddy Jackson (centre) speaking outside Belfast Crown Court after he was found not guilty of raping a woman Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Ireland and Ulster rugby player Paddy Jackson (centre) speaking outside Belfast Crown Court after he was found not guilty of raping a woman Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Lesley-Anne McKeown

It is just over 10 years since Paddy Jackson experienced his first taste of triumph.

As a schoolboy he was hailed for heroic efforts in winning the coveted Ulster School's Cup on March 17, 2008.

Since then, there have been many moments to savour - not least stepping out in green for the first time as the Irish national anthem echoed around Edinburgh's Murrayfield Stadium in 2013.

Today, as he left the court, Jackson was flanked by family and friends who had supported him every day of the nine-week trial.

Born David Patrick Lindsay James Jackson in Lisburn, Co Antrim on January 5, 1992, he marked his 26th birthday just weeks before the case opened.

He has a younger sister and an older brother who at the time of the alleged rape in June 2016 was sharing Jackson's Oakleigh Park home with his partner and infant daughter. The baby was not in the house on the night in question.

His family lived in Birmingham for a time but returned to Belfast while Paddy was still of primary school age.

He played mini rugby for Belfast Harlequins, a club based in the affluent Malone Road area in the south of the city from the age of eight or nine.

But it was at the prestigious Methodist College (Methody) where Jackson's talent for rugby was really nurtured.

And after that stellar Schools Cup performance when he helped Methody trounce their opponents 36-nil, he was invited to join the rugby elite.

Having left school at the age of 18 with three A-level grades B, C and D, he followed his passion and took a place at the Ulster Academy.

Recognised as an impressive and quick-thinking player, Jackson made his senior debut for Ulster in 2011, while still a teenager.

A year later, aged just 20 and with only a handful of games under his belt, he found himself centre stage at the Heineken Cup final at Twickenham. Although it was not his finest hour, Jackson undoubtedly made a name for himself among the game's greats.

He now has 25 Ireland caps.

Off the pitch Paddy Jackson is also hugely popular.

He has more than 40,000 followers on Twitter and a further 57,000 people follow his posts on Instagram.

A cursory scroll through his social media highlights the lifestyle he has enjoyed - promoting fancy cars, designer clothes and even, free food.

On the night of the alleged rape, June 28, 2016, he had been partying in the VIP section of Ollie's - a nightclub in the basement of Belfast's five-star Merchant Hotel.

Also present in the exclusive members' lounge were Northern Ireland footballers, fresh from their success at the European Championships.

And as a huge football fan - he has told sports interviewers he would have wanted to play football for Liverpool or Northern Ireland if he wasn't a rugby professional - Jackson was in his element socialising with other local sporting heroes.

He had been one of the "happiest" men in Belfast at the time and CCTV footage shows he was comfortable posing for pictures and speaking to those who approached him on his night out.

Jackson has traded on his squeaky clean image - fronting charity campaigns for Mencap and Action Cancer.

Yet, as the joker in the pack he has found himself in hot water including when "blacked up" images of him wearing a "slave costume" were posted to his Twitter account.

His hobbies include reading Harry Potter and watching the hit fantasy television show Game Of Thrones.

He also enjoys sketching and drawing, particularly his dog and superheroes such as Spider-Man and Batman as well as miming to rap songs, something he described as a "silly" pastime but earned him more than a million hits on Youtube.

The court heard that Jackson cites some of rugby's biggest names including Ireland captain Rory Best as close personal friends.

He even baby-sat Best's children and was invited to his son's sixth birthday party.

Ulster and Ireland winger Craig Gilroy and British Lions star Iain Henderson are also among his pals.

Co-accused Stuart Olding was described as a "very close friend" having clicked with him when they met at the Ulster Academy.

He went to school with Blane McIlroy and Rory Harrison, who also faced charges connected with the alleged rape, and has known them since the age of 11.

Witnesses, including his brother's partner Eimer Murray and another doctor friend Katie Donaldson gave evidence on his behalf saying he was polite, passive and a gentleman.

Throughout the trial Jackson has enjoyed the unwavering support of his parents.

Twice a day they walked him through the bank of photographers posted outside Belfast's Laganside Courthouse and sat in the front row of the packed public gallery listening to hours of graphic evidence.

So, whatever the future holds Jackson knows he can depend on those who matter the most - those family and friends who stood with him through the worst of times as they did on that glorious St Patrick's Day in 2008.

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