Saturday 23 March 2019

'I don't see that we should be re-opening old wounds' - New Ulster CEO shuts down talk of Paddy Jackson return

Ulster Rugby chief executive, Jonny Petrie. Photo: John Dickson / DICKSOND
Ulster Rugby chief executive, Jonny Petrie. Photo: John Dickson / DICKSOND

Jonathan Bradley

In his first media appearance since becoming Ulster Rugby chief executive, Jonny Petrie has seemingly taken a potential return for Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding off the table.

The former Ulster pair were acquitted of raping the same woman at a house party in the summer of 2016 but both still had their contracts revoked following an internal review by Ulster and the IRFU and now ply their trade in France.

Since the pair left their home province, high-ranking officials in the IRFU and Ulster have adopted a never-say-never approach to a possible return, but it does not appear to be on the new CEO's agenda.

"This issue, looking at it from the outside, has been something that has been hugely divisive on a number of fronts," said Petrie.

"I've been brought here to move this place forward and, to move it forward, I don't see that we should be re-opening old wounds.

"This needs to be about the rugby and we need to move this club forward.

"If people want to draw their own conclusions from that, that's up to them, but I don't see it's in anyone's best interests to be re-opening old wounds that have caused such division within the sport and across society."

While previous CEO Shane Logan outlined a vision for making Ulster the "best side in the world" - a line used as a stick to beat him with once matters unravelled on and off the pitch - Petrie has shied away from any such bold claims.

"There's no point making bold proclamations of targets or saying 'we're going to win this or win that'.

"Everyone knows what Ulster Rugby and rugby in Ulster can be when we make it a success. The cliché is that you have to focus on the process and not the outcome."

Whether it be standing among fans on the terraces at a recent interpro, taking in a Schools Cup and All-Ireland League game on the same Saturday a few weekends ago, or sitting in on various committee meetings, the former Scottish international has been getting to grips with rugby at all levels in his new home.

There has already been an upturn of fortunes on the field in the short-term, Ulster securing a place in the quarter-final of the Champions Cup for the first time in five years, while recent recruitment has also been cause for cautious optimism - not least the three-year contract extension signed by fit-again South African star Marcell Coetzee.

Attendance figures, though, have not had a similar bounce-back. Season-ticket sales have fallen from 10,400 to 8,600 over the past two campaigns, while the 1,500 fall in average attendance from 2016/17 to 2017/18 has not been redressed with only two home gates to date having exceeded last year's average of 14,200.

"You don't need to be an accountant to see some of the challenges that are in there," admitted Petrie , who is well aware that professional match income accounted for £3.3m of Ulster's £10.2m total revenue in their 2017-18 annual report.

Irish Independent

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