Belfast Telegraph

Rape trial fallout: The Ulster rugby pretence this was routine Press conference lasted two minutes

Claire McNeilly

Everyone knew there was a huge elephant charging around the room.

The bright and airy Terrace Suite may have looked inviting, but it was also freezing, and no attempt was made at encouraging the gathered media to outstay an already chilly welcome.

Ulster Rugby officials were well aware that the posse of journalists and photographers hadn't descended on Newforge just to hear about the team's preparations for this weekend's PRO14 match against Edinburgh.

Indeed, some news journalists, including this one, had hitherto been warned via email about what they were expected to ask.

"Please note that this is our match week media call so only rugby matters will be discussed," it stated.

"No comments will be made in relation to the trial or subsequent review."

The pretence that this was a routine audience with the Press prevailed for less than two minutes. After all, this was the first Ulster Press conference since two of the club's best-known players were acquitted of rape almost a week ago.

Should everyone just pretend that the last two months hadn't happened, that one of the most high-profile trials in Northern Ireland legal history hadn't been spun out and forensically examined through every medium imaginable, that the online backlash against Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding was gargantuan, vicious, unprecedented and ongoing?

Neither chief executive Shane Logan nor operations director Bryn Cunningham - the two main men - were there to answer questions. Neither was Ulster Rugby's chief media man.

When head coach Jono Gibbes entered the room at 3.30pm alone and visibly uncomfortable he persisted with his efforts to make this just another Press conference about just another Ulster game in just another week.

But the venue had changed - from Kingspan Stadium to Newforge Country Club - as had the timing of it, from the usual Tuesday get-together.

Cynics might suggest that this was an attempt to brush a few distasteful crumbs under the carpet on a wet and sleepy Easter Monday, a good four miles away from Ravenhill.

Gibbes himself added to the surreal atmosphere.

This is the man who announced a month ago that he would be leaving Ulster to return to his native New Zealand... just days after dismissing rumours of his imminent departure Down Under as "fake news".

Sporting his club cap, he sat down in a blue chair placed in the top right-hand corner of the room, facing a two-deep semi-circle of blue chairs occupied by a mix of news and sports journalists as photographers snapped away.

The first couple of questions from the media concerned Ulster's forthcoming encounter in Edinburgh; but the third, less than two minutes in, was about the "off-field stories in the last couple of weeks" and whether they'd been difficult for the outgoing coach to manage.

"It's a reality certainly, but there's people placed in the organisation to deal with things like that," he said.

"My role is to prepare the guys for performance stuff for the match week. You focus on what you can control."

He was then asked by Belfast Telegraph rugby correspondent Jonathan Bradley if Jackson and Olding would be available to play this season, or when he's likely to find out. He replied: "I've got literally no idea.

"It hasn't been communicated to me and there's a process going on at the moment in Dublin that's at the highest level of the union and I can't really comment on anything more than that."

Another reporter asked about mood and morale in the team, to which Gibbes answered: "Our energies are pretty good."

When I subsequently asked if there was any truth to the rumour that there had been a split in the Ulster changing room, marketing communications manager Damian Kelly cut me off immediately.

He said: "Sorry, I think we've established we can't make any further comment on off-field issues. You're trying to refer to off-field issues. Can we try and keep it focused on the game this weekend?"

Next up following a question about Craig Gilroy - who was recently reported to having participated in the series of lurid WhatsApp messages made public during the trial - Gibbes confirmed that the winger was available for selection.

But the 'off-field' questions kept coming.

A sports journalist asked if this episode had been "a massive cloud". Gibbes said: "It's not a situation I've ever found myself in before. It is a difficult situation, but I can't control any of that stuff."

Ulster Rugby has so far resisted calls to make public its code of conduct for players. But when I asked Gibbes if there was a code of conduct for players off the pitch, he was prevented from answering. Mr Kelly said: "That's of no relation to this week's game, so we'll have to move on."

Gibbes departed and was replaced by two overseas players - Ulster views spoken with a southern hemisphere accent. But they added little.

With Newforge being the property of the PSNI, everything was always going to be conducted in an orderly fashion.

Ulster Rugby, tightly run and tight-lipped even at the best of times, were certainly not going to be effusive about this hottest of hot potatoes.

And tempers, inevitably, frayed long before the end - but at least we learned that the team is going to have a tough game this weekend.

For Ulster Rugby, however, the real challenge still lies ahead.

5 questions we wanted to ask ulster rugby chiefs

1. Will Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding play for Ulster Rugby again?

2. When will the findings of the review committee, made up of senior representatives of the IRFU and Ulster Rugby, be known?

3. Who exactly is on the review committee?

4. Is Ulster Rugby concerned about the negative publicity from the case?

5. Do you have a code of conduct, and will it be published?

 

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