In June 2016, not many people in Belfast had it as good as Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding. Highly successful, young, professional athletes, plying their trade in their home city, popular both on and off the rugby field.
Whilst everyone in the province and on the island will have their own opinion about what went on in that house in Oakleigh Park that night, the bottom line is…no winners were ever going to come from this. Like any trial, we can only hope that when all is said and done, the lay men and women sitting to one side in the court room get the thing right.
From a sporting context, the not guilty verdict throws up its own questions. Not just about the futures of both Jackson and Olding, but how the IRFU and Ulster Rugby will handle the fall out from this unprecedented case, as respective organisations.
Attention is drawn to the 25-year-old centre, who between injury and his implication in the events of what happened off the Ravenhill Road on that summer’s night, has played very little rugby in the last three and a half years. Whilst no doubt a player of high promise when making his international debut in 2013, and crossing the whitewash a year later for his first international try, the former BRA man sees himself back at square one career wise, and one wonders whether a move abroad to reinvent himself would prove the road best traveled.
Jackson on the other hand has a somewhat different set of circumstances to negotiate. A lynchpin of the Ulster side, and a seasoned international with Ireland by the time allegations came to light last Summer, Jackson must surely be itching to hit the play button, in time for next Autumn’s World Cup in Japan. Undoubtedly, a fit Jackson would have played a role in Ireland’s Six Nation Grand Slam success, in competition with Joey Carberry to play understudy to star man Jonny Sexton. The out-half must be praying that normal service resumes itself as quickly as possible.
Pertinent too, to mention the sporting backdrop that the legal proceeds played itself out in front of. Ulster have struggled terribly this season, and in the past few months have missed out on qualification for the knockout stages of the European Champions Cup and are in serious danger of not making the play-offs in the Pro14. Off the field, problems have been exacerbated with the resignation of director of rugby Les Kiss, head coach Jono Gibbes confirming he will follow suit at the end of the season, and with former stars Stephen Ferris and Paddy Wallace, amongst others, vocal in their calls for the province’s chief executive Shane Logan to stand down.
In a joint statement released after the verdict, the IRFU and Ulster Rugby confirmed they will hold their own review, with both players remaining suspended until the results of a specially appointed Review Committee have been found.
The only thing that is certain – both Jackson and Olding’s careers as professional sportspeople have been, and will continue to be, defined by what has happened, with many suggesting that the “not guilty” verdict will not be enough to save their careers on these shores.