Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding sacked by Ulster Rugby
Two Ireland and Ulster rugby stars who were acquitted of rape have been sacked.
Employers Ulster Rugby and the Irish Rugby Football Union have revoked Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding's contracts with immediate effect.
The announcement follows an internal review into their conduct.
Both players have expressed disappointment and regret at the move.
While Jackson (26) and Olding (25) were found not guilty last month after a high-profile trial, other aspects of their behaviour have been heavily criticised, with major sponsors of Ulster Rugby having voiced concern.
The IRFU and Ulster Rugby review had focused on a series of sexually explicit WhatsApp conversations involving the players and their friends about the sexual encounter at the centre of the rape trial.
The messages, which referred to women in derogatory terms, were presented as evidence during the marathon nine-week trial at Belfast Crown Court.
The players' departure, which was first reported by the Press Association on Friday, was confirmed in a statement on Saturday morning.
A joint statement from Ulster Rugby and the IRFU stated: "Following a review, conducted in the aftermath of recent court proceedings, the Irish Rugby Football Union and Ulster Rugby have revoked the contracts of Patrick Jackson and Stuart Olding with immediate effect.
"In arriving at this decision, the Irish Rugby Football Union and Ulster Rugby acknowledge our responsibility and commitment to the core values of the game - respect, inclusivity and integrity.
"It has been agreed, as part of this commitment, to conduct an in-depth review of existing structures and educational programmes, within the game in Ireland, to ensure the importance of these core values is clearly understood, supported and practised at every level of the game."
Jackson and Olding had been accused of raping the same woman at a house party at Jackson's home in June 2016.
Last month, a jury of eight men and three women found the players unanimously not guilty of rape after deliberating for three hours and 45 minutes.
All jurors also acquitted Jackson of sexual assault.
Outhalf Jackson told the Press Association he was "deeply disappointed" with the outcome of the review.
"However, I recognise that my behaviour has fallen far short of the values expected of me as an international player, a role model for the game of rugby and as a son and a brother," he added.
"I am truly sorry.
"Since I was a young boy it was my ambition to play for Ulster and Ireland and I am extremely proud, privileged and honoured to have done so. It is therefore with great sadness and regret but with many cherished memories that I leave that behind.
"I would like to thank everyone who has supported me throughout this process. I have taken great strength from that support.
"I'd also like to thank Ulster and Irish rugby for the opportunities that they provided for me and I wish them, and all my former team-mates, every success.
"My focus in the months and years ahead will be on rebuilding the trust placed in me by people throughout Ulster and Ireland."
Olding also expressed regret.
"I am very sorry this day has come to pass," he said.
The centre said he would seek new challenges and did not bear any ill-will.
"As I said outside court following my acquittal, I am and will always be fiercely proud of having played for my province and country.
"I very much wished to continue to have the opportunity to represent them.
"Regrettably, influences outside of my contractual arrangement have made it impossible for that to happen.
"I said outside court that the Stuart Olding that you read about in the trial is not the real Stuart Olding.
"The treatment that I have received since my acquittal, both fair and unfair, has made me even more determined to prove myself."
Two other men, Blane McIlroy (26) and Rory Harrison (25) were also unanimously acquitted of lesser charges connected to the case.
Ireland and Ulster star Craig Gilroy, who was not involved in the trial, has been disciplined for sending one of the offensive messages that was outlined to the court.
He had already been made unavailable for selection and will now face a further two-week suspension.
An intense debate on Jackson and Olding's future has been played out in print and online since the verdicts.
Campaigners calling for Jackson and Olding to be axed took out a prominent newspaper advert last week.
Supporters demanding their reinstatement followed suit with their own newspaper advert this week.
Thousands of people on both sides of the argument have also signed competing online petitions reflecting their views.
Around 250 people staged a protest outside Ulster Rugby's stadium on Friday night ahead of the team's first home game since the two players were acquitted.
Demonstrators gathered outside the Kingspan Stadium in east Belfast ahead of Ulster's Pro14 match against the Ospreys to express solidarity with the woman at the centre of the case and call for changes to how complainants in rape trials are treated by the criminal justice system.
They also called for action against what they claim is a misogynistic culture within rugby.