Rugby chiefs not told about Rory Best trip to rape trial
Ireland rugby captain Rory Best and international team mate Iain Henderson did not seek permission or inform the IRFU of their intention to attend Belfast Crown Court where their Irish and Ulster team-mates Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding are standing trial for rape.
Irish coach Joe Schmidt was also not asked for his permission by Mr Best and Mr Henderson before they travelled to Belfast Crown Court last Wednesday and were subsequently photographed, the Sunday Independent understands.
A source close to the camp said the union was taken by surprise when two of their star players turned up at the trial.
Mr Jackson and Mr Olding are accused of raping a 19-year-old woman in June 2016, with Mr Jackson also facing an additional charge of sexual assault. They both deny the charges.
A third man, former Ulster Academy player Blane McIlroy, is charged with indecent exposure, while ex-UCD and Belfast Harlequins player Rory Harrison is accused of perverting the course of justice and withholding information. Both deny the charges.
Both team captain and hooker Mr Best and lock Mr Henderson had been preparing for last night's opening NatWest Six Nations clash against France at the Irish training camp at Carton House in Maynooth on Monday and Tuesday last week.
Last Wednesday was a rest day for the players and the two players went to Belfast before returning to the team HQ in time for training last Thursday.
Mr Best opted not to explain their decision when questioned by media at the traditional 'captain's run' in Paris last Friday.
But last night, after Ireland beat France, Mr Best broke his silence. He said: "Wednesday was our day off and we don't need permission to do stuff on our own time.
"The reason I was there is it's on the record that I've been called as a character witness and I was advised that it was important to get both sides of the story so that I could make an informed decision about that. And because it's an ongoing legal matter I'll not make any further comment other than that."
The Sunday Independent sent 10 questions relating to the circumstances surrounding the two international stars travelling to Belfast, but the IRFU declined to answer them.
A spokesperson said: "We confirmed to the BBC last Wednesday that any person attending court proceedings does so in a personal capacity. It would be inappropriate for the IRFU to comment on any matter pertaining to ongoing legal proceedings.
"We must respect the primacy and importance of the ongoing trial and to do so we must ensure that we provide no information, or comment, that could either directly or indirectly impact upon it."
Print and broadcast media were also issued with a warning prior to a press conference at the Carton House in Maynooth last Thursday that any questions relating to the trial or the attendance of Mr Best and Mr Henderson at Belfast Crown Court would not be addressed.
A source close to the camp said: "Every week in camp when it comes to their day off the players can do whatever they want to do. They don't have to run it by the IRFU.
"It would never be a case that they would seek permission for anything. The IRFU wouldn't be able to stop them doing whatever they wanted to do on their day off either.
"For the past few days the players and coaches' minds have been on the game.
"If the house burned down before kick-off I doubt it would be addressed. It won't even be discussed in France."
The source added: "People need to understand the lads are all like brothers. They are very close. So if he attended it was out of his relationship with his team-mates."
Asked how the IRFU would feel about the attendance, the source said: "You can't imagine they would be too happy."
When asked before yesterday's game if the players' performance on the pitch would be affected by their attendance at the trial, coach Joe Schmidt said the team were in a "bubble" ahead of the Six Nations kick-off.
"Players, they're very good on staying focused to what they need to do in the very short term and anything else will be discussed or solved at a later date."
Last Thursday at Carton House, coach Schmidt was asked: "It's not about the trial [but] did you give Rory Best permission to go to Belfast and did you know about it?"
He answered : "I've got no comment on any of that."