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Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future

By Neil Best
Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding

When the willingness is great, the difficulties cannot be great.  

It was pleasing to see Ulster’s desire return them to winning ways at the weekend. After three defeats in a row, the win in Edinburgh was welcome respite in what has been a hugely disappointing season. Ulster didn’t have a spectacular start to the game but Edinburgh failed to take control either. It allowed Ulster to feel their way into things until Charles Piutau sparked their confidence. Ulster proved competent defensively and their backline slick in attack with Darren Cave making a strong case for a new contract.

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The forwards have been a weak point for much of the season but they acquitted themselves well -not dominant but competitive. When the first scrum of the game came in the second half it exposed Ulster’s considerable achilles heel. Something they will have to remedy in the remaining weeks of the season to have any hope of salvaging a playoff spot.

It’s a big ask because they’re going to have to win four in a row -something they haven’t achieved since the opening month of the season. They haven’t even managed two in a row since the back to back wins against Harlequins in December.

Most significant maybe in Friday night’s performance was the presence of Rory Best -always talking and encouraging those around him. Whilst Ireland have benefitted from his leadership this season -it’s been largely at Ulster’s expense. You could see his influence in how Ulster closed out the last fifteen minutes -even though he was replaced by Rob Herring with a few minutes to go. A number of the pack raised their game against Edinburgh, with some younger players involved who will only get better with experience. A playoff remains possible even if unlikely.

The build-up to the game was significantly overshadowed by the ongoing suspension of Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding. It was a subject I had decided not to comment upon -until Craig Gilroy also found himself suspended. It’s clear to me his suspension was a direct result of it suddenly dawning on the Club that maintaining the suspension of the other two post-acquittal could only be done so on what they had admitted in evidence and the unsavoury Whatsapp messaging.

As Gilroy had been disclosed in Court as having participated in this group he too found himself suspended. However, bizarrely this didn’t come about when the Club became aware of the evidence to be produced at trial, or even during the trial itself, but post-trial when establishing a basis of continued suspension of Jackson and Olding.

If the club truly believed Gilroy’s participation in this messaging warranted suspension and investigation it should have happened sooner -and because this didn’t happen it suggests to me it’s an afterthought in response to public opinion. Indeed, much of the Club’s approach since the verdict suggests inadequate thought of how to manage the outcome of the trial whatever that might have been.

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It also seems Jackson was done no favours by the public pronouncements of his lawyers in the immediate aftermath of the trial -if anything, it further antagonised public opinion towards him. It’s hard to believe that he was the origin of this strategy and his late in the day apology has done little to redeem the situation.

But there is still one necessary apology that hasn’t been made -from Ulster Rugby itself. 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.

The Club and that system must shoulder a shared responsibility for the character and behaviour of the young players it produces. Rather than suspending or sacking them maybe Ulster should seek to further educate them on the standards and attitudes it expects and review current programmes to minimise the prospect of one of their system’s products ever remotely becoming involved in anything like this again.

Ulster and Irish rugby will comfortably carry on next season without Paddy Jackson, Stuart Olding or even Craig Gilroy but that would be the easy option. 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.

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The only difference between the saint and the sinner is that every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.

A look at Irish Schoolboy Rugby:

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