Backlash after Ireland captain Rory Best attends rape trial
Twitter labels criticising Ireland and Ulster Rugby captain Rory Best for attending a rape trial involving team-mates have gone viral.
Several hashtags - such as #notmycaptain, #shouldertoshoulderwithher and #boycottirishrugby - began circulating on social media after Best and Ulster Rugby and Ireland team-mate Iain Henderson attended Belfast Crown Court last Wednesday, where Stuart Olding (24) and Paddy Jackson (26) are on trial.
The Ireland and Ulster stars are accused of raping the same woman in south Belfast in June 2016. Jackson is also charged with sexual assault. Both deny the charges.
Two other men have also been returned for trial on charges connected with the same incident.
Former Ulster Academy player Blane McIlroy (26) has pleaded not guilty to one count of exposure, while Belfast Harlequins player Rory Harrison (25) denies perverting the course of justice and withholding information.
Speaking after Saturday's Six Nations match in Paris, Best told reporters his reasons for attending court last week.
He said: "We sign out on Tuesday night, Wednesday is our day off, so technically we don't need permission to do stuff on our own time. The reason I was there, it's on the record I've been called as a character witness.
"I was advised it was important to attend, so I got both sides of the story. Because it's an ongoing legal matter, I will make no further comment than that."
Best's comments were criticised by social media users.
One wrote: "For the first time ever I found myself wishing for a loss for a national team... @Irish Rugby your players need to be held accountable #notmycaptain #shouldertoshoulderwithher."
Another wrote: "Previously had a great deal of admiration for Rory Best but the decision to go to a rape trial is not one I can support. IRFU need to do something. #notmycaptain #shouldertoshoulderwithher."
Last week Alliance MLA Paula Bradshaw wrote to Ulster Rugby to ask what guidance was provided to team members in relation to attending the trial. Yesterday, she said she had been contacted by former players of Ulster Rugby and other clubs "wanting to distance themselves" from the decision to attend court.
"It's hard to measure if the rugby teams' reputations have been tarnished," she said. "Rory Best says he was there to inform himself, but a character reference needs to be independent from the other evidence.
"The whole thing has been ill-judged from the start."
Yesterday it was reported that Best and Henderson did not seek permission from the IRFU, or inform it of their intention to attend the trial. Irish coach Joe Schmidt was also not asked for his permission by Mr Best.
The IRFU said: "We confirmed to the BBC last Wednesday that any person attending court proceedings does so in a personal capacity.
"It would be inappropriate for the IRFU to comment on any matter pertaining to ongoing legal proceedings. We must respect the primacy and importance of the ongoing trial and to do so we must ensure that we provide no information, or comment, that could either directly or indirectly impact upon it."
However, the Sunday Business Post reported that Ulster Rugby had given advice to staff and players on making public statements and appearances during the trial.
Ulster Rugby told the paper it took the criminal allegations made at the trial "extremely seriously", adding: "Both players will continue to receive appropriate support from the IRFU and Ulster Rugby. The IRFU and Ulster Rugby will conduct a full review of the matter when the trial has concluded."