Wednesday 23 October 2019

Tony Ward: Jackson and Olding may have been stunned by the public backlash, but I have little sympathy for them


Stuart Olding and Paddy Jackson have had their contracts revoked by the IRFU. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Stuart Olding and Paddy Jackson have had their contracts revoked by the IRFU. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, the age of foolishness, the Spring of hope, the Winter of despair." To Charles Dickens that immortalised, if abbreviated, quote.

We have just been through the most amazing chapter in our rugby playing history culminating in only a third, but unquestionably the greatest, Grand Slam. Yet, running parallel, was the ever-growing elephant in the room consistently referred to as 'The' Belfast Trial.

Given the northern province's bloodied and political judicial history, that moniker is in itself some statement. I'll avoid saying "it captured the imagination" because for this observer, virtually every detail stuck in the craw.

Given my passion for sport and the great game of rugby, I, as a human being and a male, have been appalled by what we have all been exposed to in the past few months. And, for the record, I despise the long-held populist image of the rugger bugger, beer-swilling days and all that they entailed.

I loathe the stories of televisions being chucked out of hotel rooms, of doors being broken down, fire extinguishers let off and so many other so-called laddish pranks. Even those sort of misdemeanours give me an uncomfortable chill in the pit of my stomach, so where stands modern-day behaviour culminating in a Laganside Magistrates Court? Irrespective of the judicial outcome, what can be said, for certain, is that there were no winners.

During the trial, the court heard evidence of the amount s of alcoholic drinks consumed by the then-charged Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding on the night of the alleged sexual assaults.

Learning of this type of behaviour should not come as a surprise though, as these drinking habits aren't unusual for professional players once their season ends and they are given a few off before pre-season starts.

If anything has come from the fallout of the trial in terms of the game of rugby itself, it is that a line has been drawn and professional players on this island have had their cards marked in relation to the consumption of alcohol and what is simply not acceptable.

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In revoking the Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding's respective contracts, the IRFU has made the only decision which it could possibly make as a governing body. While I am in no doubt that corporate sponsorship factors played a part, I would like to think the individuals central to the decision-making process did what they believed to be right on moral and ethical grounds, irrespective of the judicial outcome.

My heart feels for the young girl central to the case, irrespective of the jury's findings which I accept as final.

I suspect that both players have been somewhat stunned at the extent of public reaction but I have little sympathy. I felt a real sense of arrogance emanating from the post-trial statement read out by Paddy Jackson's legal team outside of the court house.

The bottom line is that two outstanding young rugby players have brought the game into disrepute;a game that has served them so well, given them a beautiful way of making a living when playing for their home province as well as their country.

In strictly playing terms, Ulster's loss will be the English Premiership or French Top 14's gain, as Jackson and Olding still have serious rugby-playing potential.

Had Jackson been available, particularly given his form in Japan last summer, Johnny Sexton would have had a very real rival for the No 10 shirt back in November, as Joey Carbery would not have been mapped as the cover out-half at that stage.

For now, the sole concern must be the fall-out from the trial. There is no such thing as enough education. The day you stop learning as a rugby player is the day you hang up your boots.

I envy this generation in terms of their opportunity to focus solely on the game but they have challenges we never faced, not least in social media.

In relation to the sickening Whatsapp messages that were read out in court, it added another layer of revulsion and no such brutish Jack-the-Lad talk happened in the boozy times of old.

The smart phone may be the root of much evil but it is the user, not the implement, responsible for what hits the web.

Better education in schools advocated by the Minister Richard Bruton - allied to the IRFU's stated intention to "conduct an in-depth review of existing structures and educational programmes within the game" - to ensure the core values of respect, inclusivity and integrity are clearly understood, supported and practised at every level of the game makes for a clear path forward.

The best of times and worst of times for rugby but the right and proper decision by the IRFU.

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