Saturday 19 January 2019

Belfast boys’ tale will never end but soon they may both turn page to write new chapter in careers


Stuart Olding pictured in his Brive jersey
Stuart Olding pictured in his Brive jersey
David Kelly

David Kelly

Stuart Olding and Paddy Jackson may never be able to close the sordid chapter of a story that engulfed Courtroom 12 of Belfast Crown Court earlier this year.

They will certainly never forget the events that brought them there, nor the reaction to the verdict that was determined within its walls.

Despite their legal acquittal, not all absolved them of moral blame.

And, as it transpired, albeit there remains scepticism about whether financial prudence or moral conscience was the ultimate arbiter, their employers sought to extricate some tariff for their actions, also.

The WhatsApp messages that emerged during the trial sealed their sporting fate, in this jurisdiction at least, and not even Olding's expression of regret for what happened on that June night could save his contract with the IRFU from being revoked.

Jackson, via his solicitor, was slightly more belligerent upon his acquittal and had issued a determined statement that his priority was to return to work.

That indeed may turn out to be the case - just not in this country.

In the weeks and months that have followed, the inevitable lowering of the voluminous outrage that attended their acquittal has only occasionally been punctured by both players' loose links with a variety of different clubs.

When the possibility emerged that England might provide an opportunity for them, such was the outpouring of hostile opposition from influential sponsors, local politicians and commentators, Sale Sharks discovered the potential difficulties that re-engaging with the pair might unearth.

Jackson and Olding, as if they didn't already appreciate their new existence, were also reconciled to their new reality, too. Sympathy from many quarters remained in short supply, regardless of age, sex or location.

But there are those who will still assert that it may still be possible to afford Jackson and Olding the opportunity to rebuild their lives - and until now rugby has been the main definer of their existence.

All will live out their days without ever being able to forget, for different reasons, what happened in June 2016 and thereafter.

But allowing the players to pursue their career from this point should not be equated with a dismissal of the events that led them here.

And so Olding begins to pick up the threads of his shattered professional career, at Brive, European champions 21 years ago but now languishing in the second tier of French rugby.

There, he will be coached by former Lion and Ireland international Jeremy Davidson, a new appointee, who would not have made such a signing without ensuring that there would be none of the opprobrium attached to it as witnessed already in England.

There had been rumblings that the presence of one, or both, might even be unsustainable in France but this was well wide of the mark and, perhaps, a necessary adjunct to the initial fumbling in the transfer market at a most inopportune time.

When Clermont Auvergne distanced themselves from the former Ulster duo, there was much conjecture that their stance was predicated upon their personal circumstances; the truth was rather more prosaic.

They had no interest in signing them under any circumstances but the facts were subsumed by fiction, allowing the white noise to ramp up again.

The confirmation for Olding that he can resume a career that had promised a gilded future, albeit one pock-marked by injury, will offer him some succour.

Redemption may remain a long way off, but rehabilitation can begin.

Because they are not involved in European competition, there is no immediate possibility that Olding might have had to face the prospect of what would have been a horribly uncomfortable return to Ireland on club duty.

The club are ambitious, though, and perhaps in a year or more, that eventuality may come to light. We can judge then, if time has been able to heal any wounds, rather than merely conceal them.

For his erstwhile colleague, the future path still remains uncertain.

Perhaps the new employment of his one-time Ulster coach Jono Gibbes at Waikato in New Zealand may provide us with a clue.

The country's north island, some 12,000 miles from home, may or may not be far enough away for some.

The sad tale will never be complete but, even if it appears unseemly to some to allow them to turn a new page, nobody has the right to prevent them from continuing their story wherever they wish to tell it.

Irish Independent

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