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Craig Gilroy available for Ulster despite rape trial revelations

Ulster Rugby's Craig Gilroy 

"THE energy's good," said the voice of Ulster Rugby head coach Jono Gibbes, his body language, however, told another tale.

A peaked cap jammed firmly on his head, the burly 41-year-old New Zealander shifted uncomfortably in his chair as he fielded questions from a not-unsympathetic press corps.

The latter were swollen by the addition of news reporters to the ranks of sports specialists - to the extent they were outnumbered by around three to one.

No one was encouraged to linger in the chilly chosen venue of their New Forge training camp where the air inside the conference room was several degrees colder than outside where the sleet was buffeted around by the wind.

The nearly departed coach - who is returning home in May for undisclosed family reasons - was one of three `faces' put forward by the province for its first press conference since the conclusion of nine-week rape trial which centred on two of its star players.

Read more: Controversial Paddy Jackson photo resurfaces

One couldn't help feeling that the choice of Gibbes and South Africans Louis Ludik and Rob Herring were carefully chosen to represent a brand that has been badly tarnished by the recent rape trial.

All from the southern hemisphere, they were about as far away as you could get from the Belfast trio Paddy Jackson, Stuart Olding and Craig Gilroy who have all been revealed to have exchanged unsavoury group texts where they referred to women using derogatory terms such as `sluts' and boasted of crude sexual exploits.

Jono Gibbes confirmed that Craig Gilroy is available for selection for Ulster rugby this weekend.

Ulster Rugby's Jonno Gibbes talks to the press yesterday. Picture by Hugh Russell.

Rumours of a rift in the camp between a cohort of hard partying younger local players who revel in their status as local sporting heroes and the more sober were not up for discussion.

An edgy, gimlet-eyed press officer was quick to leap on any question not about "on the field issues".

Read more: Raft of changes to rape trials in Northern Ireland have been `stalled by the collapse of devolution' - former justice minister

Ludik, however, acknowledged it was "impossible not to be aware of" of the protracted rape trial that had put his side under an unwelcome spotlight.

"All we can control is the rugby," he said ruefully.

"We have to be focused on the rugby itself.

"We have people talking about it. Everyone's got a different opinion. That's all we hear about - their opinion - but, at the end of the day, all we can do is focus on is the rugby. That's what we're paid to do, that's what we do."

Gibbes admits it is "not a situation I've ever found myself in before, it's a difficult situation".

For the coach, rugby is the language he is most comfortable with and is the one he chooses to explain the effect of the rape case which has "been part of the group if you like for 21 months".

"I can only speak as to what I pick up from the field," he said.

"How quick we get off the ground in defence, little kicks, tackles... self motivation and enthusiasm and things drawn from within you. you need to be in a good headspace to perform acts like that."

He believes they are coping well and "able to put things into different compartments", but over the last 12 months there have "been periods of the game where we're well-positioned, we go a score behind and it's the next movement that comes and that we're not managing well or making mistakes".

When asked to explain the gap between the team's strong training pitch standard and disappointing displays in matches, Ludik also admits to a certain amount of "brittle confidence".

During this short interaction with the media, it is clear that the struggles of Ulster Rugby are not confined to the playing field.

The club is giving the impression that it is fractured and struggling to pull itself out of a morass of sleaze allegations off the pitch and debilitating self-doubt on it.

"We prepare in building each day the relationships that we have, and the responsibility we have to each other," Gibbes said.

"A hell of a lot of energy is going into that at the moment."

Read more: Craig Gilroy the third Ulster player to be linked to a series of controversial WhatsApp messages at the centre of rape trial

Claire Simpson: Educating young sportsmen on acceptable language would be a good start (Premium)

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