How Ulster rose again after rape trial left the club's reputation in tatters
It is a few days before the start of another Champions Cup campaign and, on the surface, all appears normal at Ulster's Kingspan Stadium.
A crowd of 14,000 will squeeze into one of the continent's most atmospheric venues tonight, all ready to give a traditional east Belfast welcome to Leicester Tigers. The bookmakers have the hosts as firm favourites to record their fifth successive victory on home soil.
Yet, any sense of normality is just a veneer. Six months may have passed since Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding were sacked by Ulster in the wake of their acquittal on charges of raping a woman at Jackson's house following a night out in Belfast, but the province are still coming to terms with the aftershocks.
Against the backdrop of turmoil, head coach Jono Gibbes resigned for family reasons in May – his predecessor, Les Kiss, had been sacked shortly after the trial began in January because of poor results – the province's chief executive, Shane Logan, also stood down, while two long-standing support staff lost their jobs as part of an internal review and senior players such as Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble retired.
Bryn Cunningham, who made more than 150 appearances for Ulster as a full-back, was the man who shouldered the responsibility in the most trying circumstances for rebuilding the playing and coaching structure of the organisation as operations director.
Speaking in detail about the affair for the first time, Cunningham revealed that his first job had been to prevent the squad from "derailing" by breaking the news of the departure of Jackson and Olding in person.
"It was like a perfect storm," said Cunningham. "We were at the centre of every media outlet in Ireland, north and south and across the water as well. It was two fairly high-profile individuals involved and there were a lot of other things going on in the public domain that accentuated the level of attention that it received.
"People felt there needed to be substantial change across the organisation and it resulted in the decision being taken that there needed to be a few changes with fairly long-standing members of staff, including Shane as the CEO as well. We had all of this going on at the same period of time.
"The player group were naturally disillusioned by everything. They are there week in and week out to try to prepare as best they can and deliver a performance at the weekend and there was a danger of that fragmenting and falling to pieces. Thankfully, it didn't and the main reason why it didn't is that, contrary to a lot of reporting at time, we have a really strong culture in the group and a real sense of togetherness."
That sense of unity was tested to the limits during a nine-week trial which damaged the characters of Jackson and Olding, along with their friends and fellow defendants Blane McIlroy, who was found innocent on charges of exposure, and Rory Harrison, who was acquitted of withholding information and perverting the course of justice.
Evidence presented by the prosecution included offensive WhatsApp messages between a group that included both players. The disclosure of the accuser's identity on social media also provoked a controversy.
All four men were acquitted but the furore did not end there. Crowds of protesters descended on the Kingspan brandishing placards demanding that the pair should be fired. When their contracts were terminated by the Irish Rugby Football Union, 20,000 Ulster supporters signed an online petition to have the two players reinstated, with some vowing never to return to the stadium, claiming the players had been victims of "cyber persecution" on social media.
That the sacking of two of the club's most influential players – Jackson had been earmarked as a future Ulster captain and heir apparent to Jonathan Sexton in the Ireland squad, while Olding is also regarded as a player of Test quality – occurred against a backdrop of turmoil and change only exacerbated the impact.
It fell to Rory Best, the Ulster and Ireland captain, who himself was criticised on social media for attending the trial, having been called as character witness for his team-mates, to exert a stabilising influence at a time when Ulster's reputation was taking a battering.
"My role within the player group was trying to get everyone to calm down a little bit and take a breath," said Best. "Unfortunately, I had the experience of people turning on you about contentious issues like that, and it is not pleasant.
"I chatted to the players and told them if they wanted to do x, y or z they should be under no illusions that there will be a lot of hatred thrown back at you. And, ultimately, it was really important that whatever we decided as a group, we did it together."
Despite the turbulence, Cunningham was able to recruit Dan McFarland, the highly regarded former Scotland assistant coach, while Billy Burns was signed from Gloucester as the replacement for Jackson, who is rebuilding his career at Perpignan.
Cunningham also spent the close season canvassing the players in order to redefine the squad's culture and identity as part of the healing process. The players will also undergo intensive seminars next month focusing on off-field behaviour.
"We looked at how we want to form the basis of our culture and values and what is important as a a group and really finding our true identity and making sure it is inclusive for everybody that is in Ulster Rugby," Cunningham added.
"Not just born and bred but people coming from outside. We are a diverse group, we have people from the south [of Ireland], people from England, people from South Africa and further afield, such as Australasia. Traditionally, people have always fitted well into the group and we need to find an even stronger collective and we are in the process of putting in the bedrock of that. Once Dan arrived, it was easy to see the key areas that shone through and how we want to be seen."
In the attempt to try to keep pace with Irish and European standard-bearers Leinster, Cunningham also believes that recent investment in their academy programme and improved talent identification is on the verge of bearing significant fruit. "We have guys who are still at school who have broken into the squad," said Cunningham. "We have four to six guys who are still at school or just in the academy who are prospects that we wouldn't see as just potential provincial players but potential internationals or beyond that."
And yet the message from Cunningham and Best is that the one thing Ulster need now is time, and patience from their supporters in the short term. While Ulster opened this season with three victories in Pro14, a record defeat by Munster in Limerick and a first home loss against Connacht since 1960 eight days ago led to criticism from some supporters. "We need time to rebuild. The majority of the fans know and all they want to see is effort and intent," Best added.
Paul Terrington, chairman of Ulster's professional team management committee, says he expects to confirm a new chief executive next month, and believes the appointment will further shape the recovery from last season.
"We have not fractured or split apart. Different people had different views and those views were held very ardently and some people may still hold those views and have withdrawn from being spectators or fans because of that and I understand and respect that," said Terrington. "But our job is to move forward for the good of rugby in Ulster."
And would the door ever be open for Jackson and Olding, who is playing for Brive in the second division in France, to return?
"I think the one thing about that is that everybody appreciates that time can be a healer and, ultimately, we were dealing with a situation where two guys and the other two members of the group were acquitted of all charges, so
I suppose there is nothing to say that down the line at some point then maybe those guys come back and play in the white of Ulster," Cunningham added. "It is probably just too early and too raw for many people to probably to make any firm judgment on that."
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