Sport Rugby

Sunday 21 April 2019

Brendan Fanning: IRFU have little choice but to sever ties with talented Ulster duo

Ireland and Ulster rugby players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding (Niall Carson/PA)
Ireland and Ulster rugby players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding (Niall Carson/PA)
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Early one February night, when the case against the Belfast Four was in the foothills of its climb, we happened across a group of adult sportsmen who were discussing the initial evidence as reported in the media.

One of them stopped to ask if, given the nature of this job, we had any inside track from reporters who might be covering the case. Eh, no, we hadn't. Already these men were speculating on where the case would go, and there was much amusement at the nature of the texts that were emerging in evidence in Laganside Court.

It was a fairly short encounter, and as we left we thought it might be appropriate to ask the following question: when, for footballers of any code on a night out, did sex become a group sport? They loved that one. We must admit to not having heard the term "toxic masculinity" before last week, but it summed up neatly the reaction to our question. You probably have to be of a certain generation to be offended by this notion that a female conquest is just that, and a conquest shared is worth more points on the Banter/Craic scoreboard.

The aftermath of the trial has been instructive. Paddy Jackson's brief, Joe McVeigh, came out looking to settle a few scores. As an exercise in good public relations it fell some way short. Stuart Olding's man, Paul Dougan, took the opposite tack. He read a statement from his client that was conciliatory and apologetic.

Dougan followed that up by going on RTÉ Radio 1's Today with Sean O'Rourke on Thursday. He showed remarkable forbearance to hang on the line while, having made an initial contribution, the journey took a scenic route around the houses before eventually coming back to him. Jesus, was he still on the line we wondered? But he hung in there for his client, who in turn is desperate to hang on to his career. In Ireland. And with Ireland.

The IRFU will no doubt ensure that he, and Paddy Jackson, are afforded due process in that attempt. Then they will cut them loose. How could they expect sponsors like Kingspan in Ulster and Vodafone with Ireland to leave their wagons hitched to this train wreck?

According to the terms of the standard contract, under the termination clause, the IRFU reserves the right to summarily terminate this Agreement and dismiss the Player from its employment if the player is guilty of gross misconduct, or has committed a serious breach of the terms of this Agreement, or any of the IRFU's policies, codes and regulations notified to the Player from time to time. That includes being guilty of any form of conduct which brings the IRFU, the Game or the Player into disrepute.

THE IRFU must give any player four weeks' written notice of its intention to terminate a contract. So if under the banner of due process the union takes a week or so to review the case and interview the players, and then issues its notice, both should be off the books by mid-May. There will be issues over severance but they can work through them.

Why not keep two players who could do a first-class job for province and country - consider for example the lack of depth beneath Johnny Sexton? Because while Jackson and Olding are not guilty of any crime - the prosecution failed to prove the charges beyond a reasonable doubt - it is impossible for the union to promote its players and its game if some of those at the top end have presented themselves in a poor light.

Alcohol was a factor. It is at the core of our culture, a nailed-on element of any celebration. Typically pro sportsmen live very disciplined lives regarding what they eat and drink. There is a huge premium on turning up for work on time and being ready to deliver. It reaches a peak on match day.

The gaps for letting their hair down are few and far between. Last Saturday and Sunday nights for example would have been like an oasis for the Ireland players. Naturally enough then the tendency is not to stick a nose in the trough but to climb in, boots and all. The night with the greatest frisson to it is the last one on tour. Crazy stuff.

On the final morning of the Lions tour of Australia in 2001 we happened across one of the tourists on Manly's busy seafront. It was around 11. He was buckled. Staggering along the pavement in full Lions livery he was happy but utterly incoherent, much to the amusement of onlookers. You wouldn't want to be making too many decisions in that state. More roll model than role model.

This case goes a bit deeper than lads being jarred, however. More like lads being laddish in an environment where that is the currency. Rugby likes to promote itself as having cornered the market on character building. 'The Team of Us' as the current Vodafone campaign has it. 'Who we are is how we play'. Oh dear.

Rugby is a great game, but aside from its comparatively low level of cynicism on the field it is no more valuable to the human condition than any other great game.

And, like those other great games, it has a problem. As have Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding. Two talented rugby players with plenty of years left ahead of them, they will have to take their talents elsewhere. France seems the most likely bet.

So long lads.

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