Northern Ireland news

Willie John McBride: As far as I'm concerned Jackson and Olding have learned their lesson

 Paddy Jackson (right) and Stuart Olding were found not guilty of rape last month. Pictures by Hugh Russell

Former Ireland and Lions rugby player Willie John McBride has added his voice to a call for the return of Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding to play for Ulster, saying "these young men have learnt their lesson." 

Jackson and Olding were found not guilty of rape following a nine-week trial.

McBride, who is president of the Official Supporters Club of Ulster Rugby, told RTE's Sean O'Rourke that while he doesn't know the men at all, he felt that it was time they were let get back to the game having been found not guilty. 

"As far as I'm concerned, these young men have learned their lesson... it's time they got back to doing what they do best and that is playing rugby."

He said he thinks Jackson and Olding are being tried by the media and others despite the not guilty verdict. 

"When the alcohol is in, the common sense is out, and it is very sad that they have all got caught up in this," he added.

"The guys have come through a very traumatic couple of months, where they have virtually been tried on television every day, walking in and out of the court.

"They have been tried on press every day, with photographs in the paper and all sorts of writings and they have been found not guilty.

"And now we have some people saying 'look, get rid of them, get them out of the way', which is totally unfair.

"These people are not guilty.

"It is time they were back playing rugby again."

 Paddy Jackson (right) and Stuart Olding were found not guilty of rape last month. Pictures by Hugh Russell

McBride was speaking out following the suspension of the pair and teammate Craig Gilroy, who are all under a joint IRFU/Ulster Rugby review for a series of misogynistic WhatsApp exchanges which emerged during the trial.

Sexually explicit text and WhatsApp messsages exchanged between the players and their male friends featured heavily during the trial.

Women were also referred to as "brasses" - a slang term for prostitute - and sluts.

While McBride admitted to not understanding how Whatsapp worked he said he found it very sad and silly that the men got involved in this. 

"We have all sinned in the past," he said.

"I am not saying we have been involved in things like that.

"These are young men who have got involved in a lot of silly things.

"As far as WhatsApp, I don't understand these things. They are long after my youth.

"I think it is very sad and very silly that they got involved in these things.

"It is obviously very wrong and very silly."

When put to McBride the amount of alcohol taken by Olding, he laughed saying "he's some drinker", and that he didn't believe the amount was accurate, even though that was the evidence given.

Olding admitted to having eight cans of beer, a few pints of Guinness, a few gin and tonics, five vodka and lemonades and a few shots during the course of the night of the incident and inbetween the consumption of food. 

McBride said "we've all done silly things in our time", referring to past Lions Tour controversies that weren't taken as seriously or given the same amount of exposure. 

"There's no question about it", Mr. McBride said "WhatsApp messages brought the game into disrepute.  However, he added the men conducted themselves very well while on camera every day throughout the trial. "They carried themselves very well through that, hopefully people will see that these are not bad young men".

"Alcohol is one of the biggest problems in all of these things".

McBride said he felt Ulster Rugby shouldn't have to apologise but that the men should be reprimanded. "You can't be held responsible for their conduct in off time, if you want to put it that way."

Jackson, 26, and his 25-year-old Ireland and Ulster team mate Olding, were unanimously acquitted of rape last month.

The jury of eight men and three women deliberated for three hours and 45 minutes after a marathon nine-week trial at Belfast Crown Court.

 Willie John McBride

Meanwhile a petition calling for the reinstatement of Jackson and Olding was temporarily removed from the internet, as Ulster Rugby came under renewed pressure to take "responsibility for the character and behaviour of players".

The petition on Change.org had attracted more than 10,000 signatures and demanded the recall of the players to the side after they were found not guilty.

Change.org has not revealed whether it removed the petition or it was taken down by the originator before it reappeared.

Former Ulster player Neil Best has also called for the players to remain on the side, following the trial, but criticised the province for its "preparation" in its youth system.

"Not only are these young men employees of Ulster Rugby, but they'd come through the youth system - supposedly prepared as potential role models, for the pressures of fame and wealth in the goldfish bowl that is Belfast," he wrote on rugbypass.com.

"The club and that system must shoulder a shared responsibility for the character and behaviour of players it produces.

"Rather than suspending or sacking them maybe Ulster should seek to further educate them on standards and attitudes it expects and review current programmes to minimise the prospect of one of their system's products ever becoming involved in anything like this again."

Mr Best, who has 100 Ulster caps and also played for Ireland, said he felt compelled to speak out following the suspension of the pair and teammate Craig Gilroy, who are all under a joint IRFU/Ulster Rugby review for a series of misogynistic WhatsApp exchanges which emerged during the trial.

He said carrying on without the players would be the easy way out and the "more difficult and right course for Ulster Rugby to take is to retain these players and guide them to higher standards of conduct for what's left of their playing careers".

Ulster Rugby's Craig Gilroy pictured at Belfast Magistrates Court during the trial of teammates Stuart Olding and Paddy Jackson

 Craig Gilroy (left), Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding

 Neil Best

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