Monday 10 December 2018

Rúaidhrí O'Connor: 105 words are the first steps back to rugby's core values

On the way out: Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding have both been sacked by Ulster and will now ply their trade abroad. Photo: Sportsfile
On the way out: Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding have both been sacked by Ulster and will now ply their trade abroad. Photo: Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

It took no more than 105 words of an IRFU statement, released on Saturday morning, to bring the most toxic chapter in Irish rugby to its natural conclusion and the promising international careers of Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding to an end.

They are already in the market in search of contracts abroad and will find willing suitors to offer them a fresh start, but for Ulster and Irish rugby it is important that lessons are learnt and the reputational damage wrought by a very public trial is repaired.

In the aftermath of the pair's acquittal on rape charges, it was said there were no winners, and that remains the case.

Jackson and Olding will still have careers within the game - but their legacies will be forever tarnished by recent events and they will never represent their home province or country again.

For Ulster and Ireland, the loss of two talented backs is significant, considering the small playing pool available.

If available, both men would have been part of Joe Schmidt's plans for next year's World Cup.

On the way out: Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding have both been sacked by Ulster and will now ply their trade abroad. Photo: Sportsfile
On the way out: Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding have both been sacked by Ulster and will now ply their trade abroad. Photo: Sportsfile

But perhaps more than any other, rugby is a sport that sells its values as much as its on-field success.

Although they were found not guilty of the crime with which they were charged, their conduct fell below the standards expected of them and it cost them dear.

For the union and the province, the price of reaching a settlement was a small one for keeping sponsors and supporters onside.

Bank of Ireland's disapproving public declaration on the matter last week summed up where many of those who bankroll the game here stood. The union's statement was telling, as it acknowledged a "responsibility and commitment to the core values of the game: Respect, inclusivity and integrity."

"It has been agreed," it continued, "as part of this commitment, to conduct an in-depth review of existing structures and educational programmes, within the game in Ireland, to ensure the importance of these core values is clearly understood, supported and practised at every level of the game."

This cannot be a token gesture, it must be a real effort to make clear to the young men playing the game professionally that their behaviour off the pitch is of equal importance to their performances on it.

That message must in turn filter down to the schools and clubs beneath.

Rugby Players Ireland, which is looking into the way the review was handled, will work with the union's HR department on how to formulate guidelines and education for players around the issues raised in the trial and its aftermath.

The IRFU is not the only governing body wrestling with issues of morality and standards. England, France and Australia have recently had to deal with current international players making homophobic remarks.

A sport's reputation is hard-won and easily eroded and the events of recent months have been damaging.

The union was left with no choice but to revoke the duo's contracts. They chose to stop short of issuing the same punishment to Craig Gilroy, whose text messages featured during the trial.

He has been disciplined and suspended until April 26.

For Ireland, life has already moved on with a Grand Slam secured without either player.

However, at Ulster the void will be much harder to fill. They have built their team around Jackson and have been left in limbo with regards to finding a new No 10 as they awaited the outcome of first the trial and then the IRFU's review.

In that time, most out-halves on the market have been snapped up.

The province will appoint a new coach in the coming weeks - Australia Sevens coach Andy Friend is a front-runner - and the incumbent has a major job on his hands if the divisions among the support-base following the trial are in any way reflected in the dressing-room.

For the two players at the heart of the storm, their futures lie away from home and, after all the publicity of the trial, they may well greet a new beginning as a relief.

Both men expressed their disappointment at the union's decision and resolved to rebuild their careers.

That is their prerogative. For Irish and Ulster rugby, it is about moving on while learning the lessons of a damaging chapter.

Irish Independent

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