Belfast Telegraph

How on earth did Ulster Rugby get so disconnected?

Brian O’Driscoll called the rugby club a ‘basket case’ earlier this week. John Laverty wonders if he’s on the ball

On February 8, 2012, Brian McLaughlin issued a statement apologising to his employers, Ulster Rugby. What on earth had the genial, softly-spoken Brian done - headbutt a rival coach? Post an expletive-ridden rant on social media? Tamper with the oval ball so that it would only sail between the Ravenhill posts if dispatched in that direction by an Ulster boot?

None of the above - and, technically, we still don't know because the bizarre statement never actually explained why an apology was necessary.

Reading between the lines, though, it was clear that McLaughlin was apologising for having expressed disappointment at losing his job.

No, really. The statement was issued a short time after a tense, awkward press conference at Newforge, during which a stoney-faced McLaughlin and Ulster's then Director of Rugby, David Humphreys, stared straight ahead while outlining the club's exciting plans for the future.

These plans did not include McLaughlin continuing as head coach - as he'd just been sacked.

The popular ex-RBAI teacher was, naturally, asked about his reaction to the news that his contract was not being renewed (although he would be staying on with the club in a lesser role, as Ulster Academy coach).

Apparently McLaughlin went on to use the D word - "disappointed" - no fewer than five times. What temerity!

Then, in writing: "Further to yesterday's press conference and the subsequent media reports, I wish to clarify my situation and apologise for any misunderstanding that may have arisen."

Yes, Brian, that look on your face, the repeated use of "disappointed"; who could have understood that, in reality, you were full of the joys that afternoon? Delighted to herald a new era where the likes of Mark Anscombe and Les Kiss would, indeed, take Ulster to another level (although perhaps not the one the club's hierarchy had in mind).

You'd think, after such a fiasco, that Ulster Rugby would (out of superstition, if nothing else) steer clear of Newforge as the venue for a pivotal press conference.

But no, the well-appointed country club would go on to host an even more bizarre one six years later.

One can only imagine Ulster Rugby's reasoning behind the decision to treat the Newforge gathering of April 2 as just another pre-match briefing.

Therefore I've let my imagination construct the next bit ...

PR Expert: "What do you think, then? This is the first Ulster press conference since two of your star players were acquitted following that high-profile nine-week trial. There's bound to be loads of questions about Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding's futures ..."

Ulster Bigwig: "No, this is about our forthcoming match with Edinburgh and nothing else."

PRE: "But with respect, Mr Bigwig, this is actually the biggest news story in Northern Ireland's history. Maybe not the most important, I'll give you that, because the word 'Agreement' isn't tagged onto the end (laughs nervously), but nothing has generated more column inches, comment, public interest and internet hits - ever. The coverage has gone global. And there are still so many unanswered questions. Maybe it's time the club's chief executive or someone of similar standing went public, at least to say an announcement of some sort is imminent; I mean, you guys wouldn't want people thinking you're being dogmatic, dismissive, or operating in some sort of ivory tower ... "

UB: "I've already given my answer".

PRE: "Okay, fair enough. But should Jono Gibbes be the one taking the conference? He's still getting stick from the fans and media, remember, for dismissing rumours of him leaving Ulster as 'fake news' - and then announcing, a few days later, that he was quitting after all ..."

UB: "Jono will handle it".

Predictably, that Easter Monday press conference in the Terrace Suite was a fractious affair, with Gibbes and others trying manfully to ignore the marauding elephant in the room and maintain that the only thing on Ulster Rugby minds was a positive PRO14 result in Scotland that weekend.

We were informed that winger Craig Gilroy - despite having just been revealed as the author of a lurid text message which required liberal use of the asterix key - would be in the squad.

The following day, it was announced that he'd been suspended.

It would be another 11 days - days filled with speculation, vile (but occasionally valid) comment, mild and extremist criticism, controversial statements, threats of legal action, proselytising, proposed boycotts, social media campaigns and demonstrations - before Ulster Rugby, in conjunction with the IRFU, officially announced that the contracts of "Patrick Jackson and Stuart Olding" had been revoked.

And 48 more hours would pass before the club's embattled chief executive Shane Logan gave a series of follow-up interviews - at the Kingspan Stadium, incidentally, not Newforge.

He insisted that the decision had not been dictated by the demands of sponsors - although the most influential one, Bank of Ireland, had cited its "concerns" just one day before the Press Association predicted, correctly, that Jackson and Olding would be leaving Ulster Rugby.

The unanimous "not guilty" verdicts had been delivered by a jury at Laganside Courts nearly three weeks earlier; surely the least the two outgoing Ireland internationals deserved was a much swifter decision on their future careers?

At least Ulster Rugby had finally brought closure to the affair that Monday, April 16 ... but wait a moment.

Didn't it all kick off again, metaphorically at least, the very next day, with yet another peculiar press conference, this time with Ulster stalwart Rob Herring expressing, on behalf of the players, sadness at how things had turned out for their now ex-colleagues.

But although those remarks were, principally, about circumstances off the field of play, 'non sports' journalists were barred from attending.

This decision, Ulster Rugby said in a subsequent statement, was taken "following consultation with regular press conference attendees" - ie, the local rugby writers who go along every week.

Oops! This was news, if you excuse the pun, to those particular scribes, who promptly challenged the club - who then admitted that they hadn't actually held any formal consultation with them.

The word 'consultation' had already raised deep suspicion among us 'non sports' people; when had Ulster Rugby ever 'consulted' with the Fourth Estate about policy issues?

Never mind, they'd surely redress the balance this week by welcoming news journalists - including our own Cate McCurry - to the Tuesday briefing.

Except they didn't. And while Cate and the others kicked their heels outside, Ulster forward Andy Warwick was inside telling the UTV reporter: "I think people from outside don't really know what's going on ..."

He meant that the general public don't realise what a strong, focused group of players Ulster Rugby possesses, but you can appreciate the irony.

The barring of news journalists for a second consecutive week has now prompted a protest from the National Union of Journalists (NUJ).

And let's not forget Ireland rugby legend Brian O'Driscoll's pithy description of the club this week - "a basket case".

Really, could Ulster's disconnect from the public get any worse?

This would almost be funny if it wasn't for the seriousness of the subject matter which brought us here in the first place.

You can argue that the misogynistic messages, which were read out during the rape trial and ultimately prompted the sackings of the two players irrespective of the not guilty verdicts, were never meant for public consumption. But once those reprehensible, indefensible sentiments were out there, the clock was ticking - albeit painfully slowly in this case - towards a predictable outcome.

Perhaps a few years ago such conduct might have been viewed in a similar light to Ulster player Roger Wilson's second drink driving conviction in July 2015.

Ulster Rugby, who were said in court to have "taken a stern view" of Wilson's behaviour, fined him two weeks wages.

The veteran forward retired - with the best wishes of club, team-mates and fans ringing in his ears - two years later.

No such send-off for Jackson and Olding, who faced that other, unofficial court - the one of the public opinion - at a time when Harvey Weinstein's despicable behaviour, #metoo and 'Time's Up' were still setting the news agendas.

Consequently, Irish rugby bosses acted, as their short, terse statement said, in the interests of "the core values of the game - respect, inclusivity and integrity".

There was little evidence of 'inclusivity' on Tuesday, with journalists left standing outside the Kingspan Stadium.

Jackson, who played in the 2012 Heineken Cup final - Brian McLaughlin's swansong, and a lofty stage Ulster haven't graced since - said he was "deeply disappointed" about the outcome of the Ulster Rugby/IRFU review.

Disappointed. There's that word again. They're getting used to hearing it at the Kingspan these days.

When Shane Logan was appointed CEO in February 2010, he announced that plans were in place to make Ulster the best rugby club in the world.

Instead, they've become the most talked about. And the least talkative.

Belfast Telegraph

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