Belfast Telegraph

Embattled Ulster rugby chiefs face protest rally outside stadium

By David Young

Just hours before news broke that rugby players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding were to leave Ulster Rugby, more than 200 protesters gathered outside the Kingspan Stadium in Belfast to protest against the "silence" of officials on the two mens' futures in the sport.

Drivers sounded their horns in support of the protesters as around 14,000 fans poured into the east Belfast stadium for a match against Welsh side Ospreys - the first home fixture since the trial ended.

A female samba band played at the protest, while demonstrators held placards calling on Ulster Rugby to act.

At one stage, teenage rugby fan Jessie Ross raced across the road to the protesters, turning to open her jacket to display a T-shirt bearing an "I support Paddy Jackson" slogan.

Moments later protester Aisling Cowan of Larne crossed to where hundreds of match fans were entering the stadium, turning to show off to photographers her handmade placard with the pungent message: "Have the balls to make a change."

Both Jackson and Olding were acquitted following a high-profile rape case in Belfast.

During the case, it was revealed messages had been exchanged between the players which gave rise to concerns about their attitudes to women.

Later, both players apologised for their conduct.

Following the verdict, Ulster Rugby and the IRFU began an internal review of the player's conduct.

A statement from the Irish Rugby Football Union and Ulster Rugby formally announcing that the two men are to depart is anticipated on Saturday, the Press Association reported last night.

It is understood a number of final contractual issues were still to be ironed out on Friday, so official confirmation could be delayed to the start of next week.

Speaking at last night's Kingspan protest, which took place before news of the two players' departure broke, Green party MLA Clare Bailey said that Ulster Rugby's silence on the issues raised by the coarse social media messages of the rape trial players was "deafening".

"The women of Ireland have had their #MeToo moment.

"We want to stamp out misogyny in sport.

"I can't see why it's taken them so long to make a decision.

"Still we've heard nothing - their silence is deafening.

"We want them to speak up - and stand up - for the women of Ulster," the MLA said.

Protester Helen Crickard of the Belfast Feminist network said: "What happened in the rape trial highlighted what a really bad attitude those men had towards women,.

"This is about keeping the pressure on Ulster Rugby to ensure that young boys coming up don't have that sort of attitude.

"We will all be watching the Ulster Rugby investigation very closely.

"I'm sure the sponsors are watching closely, so we'll see what happens."

But some rugby fans at last night's game felt that the 'not guilty' verdict in the rape trial should have been the end of the matter.

Fan Chris Holdsworth from Dungannon said of the protesters: "I think they're wasting their time, to be quite honest.

"They've been found not guilty and that's it.

"Leave them alone, please."

And rugby fan Gillian Martin, told the Belfast Telegraph: "To be honest how many of them (the protesters) are rugby followers?

"They're ruining a really nice night for us.

"Those guys weren't on trial because they were rugby players: they were on trial for something else."

Belfast Telegraph

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