Sport Ulster Rugby

Friday 17 August 2018

Comment: Lip service won't be enough as IRFU and Ulster seek ways to move forward from fall-out

Paddy Jackson. Photo: PA
Paddy Jackson. Photo: PA

Jonathan Bradley

In a setting less grave, this level of severe understatement might have brought about a wry smile. Under the circumstances, it was met with only serious nods.

"It's not a situation I've ever found myself in before," said head coach Jono Gibbes two weeks ago today of the elephant that has stomped around every square inch of every room in the Kingspan Stadium.

This answer from the departing Kiwi came in a press conference where sports journalists were outnumbered three-to-one by their news counterparts. That told its own tale of how the story of Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding hadn't ended the day the players were found not guilty of raping the same woman at Jackson's home in June 2016.

The court of public opinion, which now sits daily on social media, ensured a trial that lasted 42 days would rumble on long after Jackson stood on the Laganside steps and made clear his intention to return to both Ulster and Ireland duty.

The lurid nature of the WhatsApp evidence had raised ire, the indefensible and reprehensible content giving example of what has been dubbed a toxic culture of masculinity.

Olding offered an apology for the events of that fateful night immediately after the verdict, Jackson followed suit some nine days later, but the damage to the all-important brand had been done.

While acquitted, both men showed remorse for their actions and spoke of a commitment to ensure they can show those most distasteful messages - not a sackable offence in isolation it would appear - are not a true reflection of their character.

It will not, however, be with their native province. Any rehabilitation of image will occur overseas.

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The same fans who signed a petition calling for reinstatement have reacted to the revoking of the contracts with horror, but sport, now more than ever, is a business. Just under a fifth of Irish Rugby's money comes from sponsorship.

Bank of Ireland has been a part of this for two decades and the expressing of their misgivings on Wednesday was a death knell.

Disrepute, when mentioned in the same breath as 'bringing your employer into', is of course a blurred issue. The point being that what is seen as beyond the pale for some isn't always for others.

There are a large number out there, whether they were a silent majority or a vocal minority, who believed that 'not guilty' should have equated to free to play. Somebody somewhere, though, decided they cannot be associated with the men in question. And, for all intents and purposes, that was that.

While the fall-out shows no signs of abating, rather than looking back, the important issue now is how we move forward.

The joint statement of the IRFU and Ulster Rugby spoke of a "review of existing structures and educational programmes". A commitment to such actions will be required; lip service in this instance won't suffice.

Not that we needed this episode to know it, but as a society we have plenty of room for improvement.

Somewhere along the way we've allowed some values to fall by the wayside - respect being chief among them. While aspects of the trial were undeniably vile, so too was plenty of the discourse surrounding it.

While former Ulster favourite turned popular pundit Neil Best wrote last week that Jackson and Olding should be part of that re-education process, that won't be the case. Their supporters may well not be around to see it either.

Numerous fans, many of them season ticket holders, said over the weekend that in light of the decision they would not be back.

On the field, however odd it seems to consider this issue in a purely sporting context, Ulster are a worse rugby team than they were last week, or at any rate certainly last summer.

Jackson was the side's future captain, a key man in the key position. Olding, too, was a gifted midfielder.

Jared Payne hasn't played in almost a year, Ruan Pienaar is already a memory. Tommy Bowe is due to retire and Charles Piutau is departing.

A side already in need of a rebuild couldn't replace such talents without the emergence of a benefactor with more money than sense.

There will be no such quick fix, but moving beyond this most divisive of episodes may well feel like an even bigger test.

The social media chatter will die, we'll see no more pickets. The media will move on to their next story. What happens between four white lines for 80 minutes each week will soon be seen as the most important goings on within rugby across the province.

To the outside, some semblance of normality will resume.

It'll only be surface deep. Things won't feel normal again for quite some time to come.

Irish Independent

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