Belfast Telegraph

Duo have been sacrificed on the altar of commercialism

By Neil Best

After Ulster's stay of execution win over Ospreys, the Ravenhill mood should have been jubilant at the whistle, but it wasn't.

Rumours had already begun to circulate as to the outcome of the IRFU-led review into Ulster players Paddy Jackson, Stuart Olding and Craig Gilroy - and the mood music was far from celebratory.

At the heart of this whole situation has been a sense of betrayal - firstly by the players of the values of their families and the club, and now by the club of young men, products of their youth system, now sacrificed, not seen to be on the altar of morals and ethics but perceived to be on the altar of sponsorship and money.

There is no easy fix for Ulster Rugby and their fans.

Routinely, Ulster supporters have learnt from Dublin-based journalists the latest and breaking news about their Belfast-based club - whether it be the arrival of Les Kiss, the departure of Ruan Pienaar or the current shortlist to replace Jono Gibbes, the news emanates from Dublin, showing clearly where decision-making power lies.

I've previously said that Ulster must learn to steer their own ship and until they do they won't be sufficiently selfish to navigate a path to club success.

Some fans have sympathy for operations director Bryn Cunningham - an ex-player who is responsible for all off-field aspects of the club - and even some for the CEO Shane Logan. Indeed, a similar number were ready to forgive the failings of Les Kiss, for no reason other than, on the whole, the fans are a good bunch who don't feel comfortable with anything that could be seen as scapegoating.

That's why the Jackson and Olding departures are so problematic for the club, the fans who have put up with Logan, Cunningham and Kiss over the past couple of seasons - even defended them - have done so because they abhor the very type of scapegoating that they feel their club are now undertaking with their own players.

No education or re-training has been offered, no prospect of rehabilitation, not even a gesture rejected. This has provided the backdrop to a growing degree of sympathy for the players inside and outside the club.

But Jackson and Olding have talent and remain highly employable and, like many others before them, they will move into exile.

Success in their new environment will provide a weekly reminder of all that is wrong with Ulster Rugby - no strategy or plan, inconsistency on and off-field and growing disconnect with the fans - all the while subject to direction from Dublin who historically retained other high-profile players amongst scandals of sexual conduct not without parallels.

And a club that isn't seen to listen to its fans nor be accountable to them will fail.

I honestly can't remember a time when Ulster Rugby has been so at odds with so many of its supporters. Whatever Ulster salvage from this season - without substantial change at the top - Ulster will continue to fail. I know how men in exile feed on dreams.

Former Ireland rugby international Neil Best played over 100 times for Ulster and now lives in Singapore. This is an edited version of a column that first appeared on www.rugbypass.com

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