A former teammate of sacked Ulster Rugby stars Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding has said the team is saddened by their exit.
Reading a pre-prepared statement at a media event which barred news reporters, Ulster and Ireland hooker Rob Herring said the remaining players knew Jackson and Olding, who were last month acquitted of rape, would go on to be successful on and off the pitch.
Audio of Herring’s brief statement to sports reporters at the Kingspan Stadium in Belfast was later released more widely.
“It is with a great deal of sadness that the players and pro staff have learnt of this outcome,” he said.
“We know that the two boys will be successful both on and off the pitch wherever they go.
“As a group, we have to move on and our full focus is now on Glasgow this weekend.”
Herring made the statement at a pre-match press conference ahead of the team’s PRO14 match with Glasgow this weekend.
It is understood news reporters were excluded because too many questions about the fallout from Jackson and Olding’s high-profile trial were asked at a previous pre-match press conference.
The pair were sacked at the weekend following an internal review into their conduct by their employers Ulster Rugby and the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU).
While Jackson, 26, and Olding, 25, were found not guilty last month after the trial, other aspects of their behaviour had 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.
On Monday, Ulster Rugby’s chief executive Shane Logan insisted money or sponsors’ wishes did not drive the decision to axe the duo.
He said both men had made a “serious mistake” and had fallen “way short” of the standards expected of professional rugby players.
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.
Two other men, Blane McIlroy, 26, and Rory Harrison, 25, were also unanimously acquitted of lesser charges connected to the case.
A spokesman for Ulster Rugby said: “The attendance of non-sport journalists at recent match week media events has caused significant disruption to regular attendees, who have been negatively impacted to the extent that they have been unable to access sufficient information and content for the days leading up to that week’s game.
“Therefore, following consultation with regular press conference attendees, it was decided that access to this week’s event would be restricted to sport journalists only.”