Former Ulster star Neil Best hits out at club after rape trial and calls for return of players
A former Ulster Rugby star has criticised the club for its handling of the fallout from the Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding rape trial - but said keeping them on would be the "right" thing.
Neil Best, who played for Ulster from 2002 to 2008, said an apology from the club was overdue, adding that Ulster should "shoulder a shared responsibility for the character and behaviour of the young players it produces".
Ireland internationals Mr Jackson and Mr Olding, who were cleared of raping a woman after a night out, are currently subject to an internal review by Ulster and the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU).
Yesterday Ulster's official supporters' club said most members wanted to see them return to action as soon as possible, warning that fans may not renew season tickets if they are not reinstated.
It came as Mr Best, who played more than 100 times for Ulster, said the club should seek to further educate the players.
He said: "Not only are these young men employees of Ulster Rugby, but they'd come through the youth system - supposedly prepared as potential role models, for the pressures of fame and wealth in the goldfish bowl that is Belfast.
"The club and that system must shoulder a shared responsibility for the character and behaviour of players it produces.
"Rather than suspending or sacking them maybe Ulster should seek to further educate them on standards and attitudes it expects and review current programmes to minimise the prospect of one of their system's products ever becoming involved in anything like this again."
The comments came in an article published yesterday on the website rugbypass.com
It came nearly a fortnight after Mr Jackson (26) and Mr Olding (25) were unanimously found not guilty of rape after a marathon 42-day trial. Mr Jackson was cleared of a further charge of sexual assault.
Blane McIlroy (26), who was accused of exposure, and Rory Harrison (25), who was charged with perverting the course of justice and withholding information, were also cleared.
Mr Best (39), who also played for Ireland, said he had only decided to comment following the suspension of Mr Jackson and Mr Olding's teammate Craig Gilroy, after it emerged he had been involved in a WhatsApp exchange that formed part of the evidence in the trial.
Mr Best said carrying on without the players would be the easy way out.
He added: "The more difficult and right course for Ulster Rugby to take is to retain these players and guide them to higher standards of conduct for what's left of their playing careers.
"The only difference between the saint and the sinner is that every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future."
His comments came amid mounting pressure from fans for the players to return. An online petition calling for their reinstatement to the squad passed 10,000 signatures last night.
And Ulster's official supporters' club issued a warning that fans could opt out of renewing their season tickets if the players are not reinstated.
The Ulster Rugby Supporters' Club said the group had received "no calls" from its members to have either Mr Jackson or Mr Olding banned from the club.
"On the contrary," the statement said, "the vast majority of members have made it clear they wish to see their early reinstatement to playing duties."
The URSC also referred to a paid-for advertisement placed in the Belfast Telegraph last week in which a group of 139 people appealed to Ulster Rugby and the IRFU to stop the sportsmen playing for either side again.
The supporters' club said: "The URSC can confirm that it had no part in this advertisement and doubts that any of the 139 who contributed financially to this advertisement are amongst its membership.
"The URSC can further confirm that it has received no calls from its membership for the aforementioned players to be banned from playing for Ulster. On the contrary, the vast majority of members have made it clear they wish to see their early reinstatement to playing duties.
"Indeed many have made it clear that if this is not the case it will strongly influence their decision on season ticket renewal or future Kingspan attendance. URSC is concerned that if such is the case, the numbers involved could impact adversely on support for the team and income for Ulster Rugby through ticket sales."
Ulster play their first home game since the verdicts at the Kingspan Stadium on Friday.
The match, against Welsh side the Ospreys, could be overshadowed by a rally organised in support of the woman at the heart of the trial outside the ground.
A spokesperson for Ulster Rugby and the IRFU said: "A review process in relation to this matter is underway and it would be inappropriate to comment on any matter pertaining to that process until it is completed."