Belfast Telegraph

Mixed emotions as Ulster rugby fans unite behind team... and then give a rousing farewell to Bowe and Marshall

Ivan Little on a night of minor protests and boycotts over Jackson and Olding as Ulster play their first home match since duo’s sacking

They thought it was all over. But the match observers of Ulster Rugby's most toxic ever clash hoped would kick internal divisions over the Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding controversy into touch, went into extra time on Saturday night with a number of isolated protests around Kingspan Atadium.

But such were the tensions at the ground over the sacking of the two stars that stewards removed banners demanding the axing of Ulster Rugby's CEO Shane Logan.

It was the first game since the announcement of the sanctions imposed on the players after their high-profile rape trial - the two were acquitted of all charges against them - sanctions which sparked calls for demonstrations and boycotts during the match with Glasgow Warriors.

After polling its members, the independent Ulster Rugby Supporters Club (URSC) decided not to join a boycott, but a number of fans did indicate online that they would vote with their feet and stay away anyway.

There were empty seats and speculation that some supporters were, indeed, boycotting the game.

The fans who were there were watching the grandstands for any signs of impromptu protests, such as the walkouts mooted on social media.

One suggestion was that supporters should leave the ground 10 minutes after the start - the number 10 being what Jackson wore on his shirt.

But the 10th minute came and went without any exodus.

The most dramatic moments were when stewards moved in to confiscate 'Logan Out' and 'We stand up for all the Ulstermen' banners and placards in several parts of the ground.

Many supporters, however, were unaware that the protests or the stewards' reaction to them had even happened.

Stewards told supporters whose banners they were taking that they were doing so on the orders of their bosses, who had instructed them to seize any material relating to the fall-out over the Jackson/Olding affair.

A number of fans adopted subtler tactics to show their anger. Some said they weren't wearing their Ulster shirts as a protest.

Others taped over the jersey logo of sponsors Bank of Ireland. It had expressed concerns over the "serious behaviour and conduct issues" which emerged during the trial.

During the 42-day trial it was revealed that explicit texts and WhatsApp messages had been exchanged by Jackson (right) and Olding (far right) and their friends after the house party at the centre of the rape allegations.

As well as clearing Jackson and Olding, the jury also found their two co-accused friends not guilty - Rory Harrison of perverting the course of justice and Blane McIlroy of exposure.

One man took to Twitter on Saturday night to say that an Ulster shirt to which he'd added a 'Logan Out' message was seized from him at the stadium and wasn't returned.

Last week several hundred feminists demonstrated outside the ground demanding an end to what they called the "culture of sexism and misogyny" in Ulster Rugby.

On Saturday night fans arriving for the must-win Pro-14 match against Glasgow had mixed views of developments over the last seven days.

Ulster season ticket holder Phil McIlfatrick from Belfast was critical of the way Ulster Rugby terminated the contracts of the two players.

"It was a financial decision. I think that Ulster bowed to the pressure from their advertisers and Ireland were worried about that too," said Mr McIlfatrick, whose brother is a former Ulster player.

Mr McIlfatrick said he hadn't renewed his season ticket for next year, though his brother had.

He was also concerned that so many players who had left Ulster or retired from the club had not been replaced by the management.

Paul Crawford, who had not one, but two Ulster flags with him, said he believed the decision to let Jackson and Olding go was the correct one.

He echoed the feelings of many fans at the Kingspan by saying he hoped a line could now be drawn under the controversy, which has hung over the club for so long.

But he was also critical of the two players' behaviour.

"Their antics could have cost us the season. They did create this situation, and in any other job or business that would be enough to get you the boot, never mind being paid off nicely on the way out," he said.

One woman who arrived late for the match said she had only come because the two players were no longer associated with the club.

She added: "Any other decision by Ulster Rugby than ending their contracts would have been catastrophic and a slap in the face for women like me who follow the team."

A male fan said talk of a boycott was "bloody nonsense".

But he also argued that the protest letters sent by the URSC to Ulster Rugby and the IRFU wouldn't "rock any boats".

The URSC had acknowledged that no matter what it did, it would have little impact on the hierarchy of Ulster Rugby and the IRFU.

But it insisted it didn't want to see any actions on Saturday night which might affect players including Tommy Bowe and Paul Marshall, who were making their final home appearances before retiring.

But if the controversy was destined to put the Ulster players off their game, someone forgot to tell them.

Commentators hailed their barnstorming 36-15 win over Glasgow as one of their best performances of the season.

And there were whispers that the team, which had publicly expressed its sadness over their colleagues' departures, had "done it for Paddy and Stuart".

Certainly, the fighting spirit of the team seemed to galvanise the crowd on a warm, sunny evening in south Belfast.

The initially subdued noise levels definitely increased as the game went on, especially when the supporters realised that a win, and indeed a bonus point, were within grasp.

The sight of Ulster legend Bowe coming off the subs' bench 10 minutes from time was greeted with an explosion of cheering the likes of which Kingspan regulars said hadn't been heard in years.

Banners - which didn't offend the edgy stewards - carried messages of thanks and farewell to Tommy in English and Irish, with the greetings coming from rugby and GAA clubs in his native Co Monaghan.

His entry into the fray - and one of his trademark crunching tackles in particular - seemed to spur on his team-mates and the crowd for a passionate climax to the game and that all-important try and bonus point which kept Ulster's season very much alive.

At the final whistle Bowe and Marshall were joined by their young children for an emotional lap of honour as fans said thanks for the memories.

Another pivotal Ulster figure was also due to retire on Saturday night - club mascot Sparky.

Grandad Norman Pollock has been the man inside the outfit for 18 years and he has clocked up hundreds of miles walking round the ground rousing the fans. He has also raised thousands of pounds for charity.

As Bowe took his bow, he thanked the Ulster supporters for their backing throughout his career and on Saturday night.

For Marshall it was a particularly emotional time.

He welled up as he spoke after the game about his son Luke's cancer battle - the brave youngster was at the game.

During the post-match TV analysis reference was made to the "difficult season" that Ulster had off the field and, though the rape trial and its repercussions weren't mentioned, there was no doubt that's what was being talked about.

On his way out of the Kingspan Stadium one fan put it all into perspective.

He said: "Bad as it was, none of that stuff about the sackings was anything compared to what Paul Marshall and his son had to go through."

Match report, Pages 46&47

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