Belfast Telegraph

Olding and Jackson sacked: Ireland rugby chiefs say conduct off pitch as important as performance on it

By Ruaidhri O’Connor

It took no more than 105 words of an IRFU statement to bring the most toxic chapter in Irish rugby to its natural conclusion and the promising international careers of Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding to an end.

They are already in the market in search of contracts abroad and will find willing suitors to offer them a fresh start, but for Ulster and Irish rugby it is important that lessons are learnt and that the reputational damage wrought by a very public trial is repaired.

In the aftermath of the pair's acquittal on rape charges, it was said that there are no winners, and that remains the case.

Jackson and Olding will still have careers within the game - but their legacies will be forever tarnished by recent events, and they will never represent their home province or country again.

For both Ulster and Ireland, the loss of two talented backs is significant, considering the small playing pool available.

If available, both men would have been part of Joe Schmidt's plans for next year's World Cup.

But, perhaps more than any other, rugby is a sport that sells its values as much as its on-field success.

Although they were found not guilty of the crime with which they were charged, their conduct fell below the standards expected of them, and it cost them dear.

For the union and the province, the price of reaching a settlement was a small one for keeping sponsors and supporters onside.

Bank of Ireland's disapproving public declaration on the matter last week summed up where many of those who bankroll the game here stood.

The union's statement was telling, as it acknowledged a "responsibility and commitment to the core values of the game: Respect, Inclusivity and Integrity".

"It has been agreed," it continued, "as part of this commitment, to conduct an in-depth review of existing structures and educational programmes, within the game in Ireland, to ensure the importance of these core values is clearly understood, supported and practised at every level of the game."

This cannot be a token gesture, it must be a real effort to make clear to the young men playing the game professionally that their behaviour off the pitch is of equal importance to their performances on it. That message must, in turn, filter down to schools and clubs.

Rugby Players Ireland, who are looking into the way the review was handled, will work with the union's human relations department on how to formulate guidelines and education for players around the issues raised in the trial and its aftermath.

A sport's reputation is hard-won and easily eroded, and the events of recent months have been damaging. The union was left with no choice but to revoke the duo's contracts.

For Ireland, life has already moved on with a Grand Slam secured without either player.

However, at Ulster the void will be much harder to fill. They have built their team around Jackson since he broke on to the scene and have been left in limbo with regards to finding a new Number 10 as they awaited the outcome of first, the trial, and then the IRFU's review.

In that time, most out-halves on the market have been snapped up.

The province will appoint a new coach in the coming weeks - Australia Sevens coach Andy Friend is a front-runner - and the incumbent has a major job on his hands if the divisions among the support-base following the trial are in any way reflected in the dressing-room.

For the two players at the heart of the storm, their futures lie away from home and, after all the publicity the trial has attracted, they may well greet a new beginning as a relief.

For Irish and Ulster rugby, it is about moving on while learning the lessons of a damaging chapter.

Belfast Telegraph

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