Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding’s move to England is in the balance after Sale Sharks issued a statement denying they are signing the former Ireland internationals.
News that the Premiership club had agreed terms with Jackson and were also close to a deal with Olding broke on Tuesday night.
However, pressure from sponsors, fans and a local MP may force the Manchester club to cancel their plans to sign the former Ulster pair who were acquitted of rape after a nine-week trial in March.
The players subsequently had their contracts terminated by the IRFU who found that the language used in derogatory WhatsApp messages which featured in evidence had fallen below the standard expected of players.
Despite the denial, Sale could yet sign the players having last year issuing a similar statement around Australian back James O’Connor and South African scrum-half Faf de Klerk, before signing them weeks later.
However, those deals did not carry the same controversy as signing Jackson and Olding, who visited the club’s training ground yesterday.
Barbara Keeley, the MP for Worsley and Eccles South, where Sale are based, said that bringing in Jackson and Olding would send “entirely the wrong signal to fans and to the local community”.
“The behaviour of Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding is not in line with the values that Sale Sharks should be projecting to our community,” Keeley wrote in a statement released to the Daily Telegraph.
The statement said: “When the Irish Rugby Football Union decided to revoke the players’ contracts, they acknowledged that they have a responsibility to uphold the values of the game: respect, inclusivity and integrity.
“Sale Sharks need to remember that their athletes are role models and the club should promote these values.”
A petition was also launched on change.org, which stated that, “Winning trophies is not worth sacrificing the club’s values and ethics for, a rugby club should be inclusive and welcoming, not implicitly endorsing a vile, misogynistic world view.”
Rather unfortunately from Sale’s perspective, the petition appeared on the homepage of the official club website under the social media feed.
It is possible that Sale underestimated the scale of feeling surrounding Jackson and Olding, who they were hoping to sign on cut-price deals, Jackson on a reported £200,000, £50,000 less than his IRFU deal.
It is understood that some of Sale’s leading sponsors immediately sought talks with the club in light of the revelations, with one company describing itself as “concerned”.
Despite a senior club source describing Jackson as “a done deal” on Monday night, Sale released a statement at 6.00pm yesterday that contradicted its earlier stance.
However, while the denial is a blow, Sale’s recent history suggests the deal is not yet dead in the water and could be revisited next week after the club have played their last game of the season.
Sale did not respond to repeated requests for clarification on their latest statement last night.