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Comment: Things won't feel normal at Ulster Rugby for quite some time after Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding saga

 

By Jonathan Bradley

In a setting less grave, it was the level of severe understatement that would have brought about a wry smile, maybe even a chuckle or two.

Under the circumstances, it was met with only serious nods.

"It's not a situation I've ever found myself in before," said head coach Jono Gibbes two weeks ago today of the elephant that has stomped around just about every square inch of every room in Kingspan Stadium during this dark season.

Two rows deep usually constitutes a full house at PRO14 previews, so that this answer from the departing Kiwi came in a press conference where sports journalists were outnumbered three-to-one by their news counterparts told its own tale of how the story of Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding hadn't ended the day the players were found not guilty of raping the same woman at Jackson's home in June 2016.

The court of public opinion, that now sits daily on social media, had returned a different outcome and ensured a trial that lasted 42 days would rumble on long after Jackson stood on the Laganside steps and made clear his intention to return to both Ulster and Ireland duty as soon as possible.

It was naive to countenance any other occurrence. The lurid nature of the WhatsApp evidence had raised ire, the indefensible and reprehensible content giving example of what has been dubbed a toxic culture of masculinity.

Olding offered an apology for the events of that fateful night immediately after the verdict, Jackson followed suit some nine days later, but the damage to the all-important brand had been done.

While acquitted, both men showed remorse for their actions, an acknowledgement that not guilty did not mean blameless, and spoke of a commitment to ensure they can show those most distasteful messages - not a sackable offence in isolation it would appear - are not a true reflection of their character.

It will not, however, be with their native province. Any rehabilitation of image will occur overseas, it was confirmed on Friday.

The same fans who signed a petition calling for reinstatement have reacted to the revoking of the pair's contracts with horror, but sport, now more than ever, is a business. Just under a fifth of Irish Rugby's money comes from sponsorship. Bank of Ireland has been a part of this equation for two decades, the expressing of their misgivings on Wednesday was a death knell. While the bank were the only ones to give more than a holding statement, others had the similar concerns that were relayed in a more private forum.

Disrepute, when mentioned in the same breath as "bringing your employer into", is, of course, a blurred issue. In 1964, United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said of defining something subjective, in this case, obscenity, "I know it when I see it."

Many in rugby, and its crucial stakeholders, the sponsors, have applied a similar test here. Plenty has gone on in the past, and the very recent past at that, that's been capable of skewing more than a handful of moral compasses. Racist and homophobic slurs have hit the headlines, players have not behaved as they should in the pub or behind the wheel, while even members of PETA would certainly have their own questions to ask were they to monitor the social media of every player the world over who at one time or another has inked a pro contract.

The point being that what is seen as beyond the pale for some isn't always for others. There are a large number out there, whether they were a silent majority or a vocal minority, who believed that not guilty should have equated to free to play. Somebody somewhere though decided they cannot be associated with the men in question. And, for all intents and purposes, that was that.

While the fall-out shows no signs of abating, rather than looking back, the important issue now is how we move forward.

The joint statement of the IRFU and Ulster Rugby spoke of a "review of existing structures and educational programmes." A commitment to such actions will be required, lip service in this instance won't suffice.

Not that we needed this episode to know it, but as a society, we have plenty of room for improvement.

There'll be many, one suspects, looking at the messages sent and thinking 'there but by the grace of God.' It's clear, and far beyond the confines of Kingspan Stadium, that somewhere along the way we've allowed some values to fall by the wayside, respect chief among them. While aspects of the trial were undeniably vile, so too was plenty of the discourse surrounding it.

While former Ulster favourite turned popular pundit Neil Best wrote last week that Jackson and Olding should be part of that re-education process, that won't be the case. Their supporters may well not be around to see it either.

Numerous fans, many of them season ticket holders, expressed over the weekend that in light of the decision, they would not be back. Their mood no doubt soured further by the notion that we'll never know, but are free to speculate, on whether this outcome would have been different if the decision was taken solely by Ulster Rugby and not at the behest of the powers that be in Dublin. Given the volume of such feelings, the crowd against Glasgow this Saturday will be interesting to monitor.

On the field, however odd it seems to consider this issue in a purely sporting context, Ulster are a worse rugby team than they were last week, or at any rate certainly last summer.

Jackson was the side's future captain, a key man in the key position and heir apparent to Johnny Sexton in the Irish team. To say he was his province's most important player is no re-writing of history.

While two ACL injuries left him a frustrated figure for so much of his career here, Olding too was a gifted midfielder.

Jared Payne hasn't played in almost a year, Ruan Pienaar is already a memory after his own, very different jettisoning. With Tommy Bowe to retire and Charles Piutau departing, it is no exaggeration to say the province has lost what as recently as 12 months ago could have been considered all but one of their starting back-line.

A side already in need of a rebuild couldn't replace such talents without the emergence of a benefactor with more money than sense. There will be no such quick fix but moving beyond this most divisive of episodes may well feel like an even bigger test.

The social media chatter will die, we'll see no more pickets. Media will, after three long months, move on to their next story. What happens between four white lines for 80 minutes each week will sometime soon again be seen as the most important goings-on within rugby across this province.

To the outside, some semblance of normality will resume.

It'll only be surface deep. Things won't feel normal again for quite some time to come.

Belfast Telegraph

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