Anyone expecting to see Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding back in an Ulster Rugby jersey this season could well be left disappointed.
The Irish international duo may have been acquitted by a rape trial jury on all charges – along with two other co-accused – but they are now to undergo a review from their employers, and it could well be the case neither will play before the end of this season.
In a joint statement yesterday the IRFU and Ulster Rugby said the players would continue to be relieved of all duties while a review is conducted by senior personnel from both organisations – something which is in line with existing procedures for all contracted players.
Jackson last played for Ulster on May 6, 2017 and with Ireland in Japan on June 24. Stuart Olding’s last game in an Ulster jersey was April 29, 2017. Both are experienced senior players.
Whatever your thoughts are on the rape trial, whatever way your morals pull you, there is no doubt Ulster Rugby has been affected both on and off the pitch by the high-profile case.
Ulster have struggled this season and while one player does not make a team, the loss of a pivotal player like Jackson – capped 123 times and having scored 872 points – has had an impact.
The high-profile nature of the court case cannot have been ignored in the changing room at Kingspan Stadium either – it is bound to have had a mental impact on others in the organisation, and a potential detrimental impact in performance.
The poor run of results this season resulted in director of rugby Les Kiss being forced to stand down and head coach Jono Gibbes is being released a year early from his contract, albeit due to personal family reasons.
Ulster have five matches remaining to secure, at the least, a play-off for a place in Europe’s Champions Cup tournament next season – could one of the best out halves in Europe possibly be available for that crucial run-in?
Public opinion on the trial reached new levels yesterday when the not guilty verdicts were announced.
And that included on whether the rugby duo should play for their Province or country again.
A decision on that will be made in due course and the IRFU and Ulster Rugby Review Committee have obvious issues they to deal with.
The decision of the jury must be respected and in my opinion, given the outcome of the court case, I would be fine with both returning to the Ulster colours – whether that be in a fortnight, a month or next season.
The players themselves may think otherwise and, of course, their peers also.
There are no winners in this situation.