Evaluating Paddy Jackson’s Rugby Future

One of the most well-documented court cases in Ireland’s history was concluded last Wednesday, when Paddy Jackson, Stuart Olding, Blane McIlroy and Rory Harrison were found not guilty of charges relating to rape, sexual assault in the case of the former three, and perverting the court of justice in Harrison’s case.

This was a gruelling, eight week-long trial that the entire country was constantly updated upon, and one that was criticised heavily in the public domain for the treatment of the complainant, a woman who was 19 at the time of the alleged incident. The division left from this case was evident right throughout the country, with marches held around Ireland only one day after the verdict was announced.

Social media was awash with arguments between both sides, Ireland-originated hashtags trending on a scale not seen in the country since #twowomentravel, stinging indictments of the justice system, and disgusting, unnecessary personal attacks. Yet the fact remains, the four men have walked out of court without a conviction.

Seeing as Jackson and Olding are now free to pursue their rugby careers once again, the IRFU announced that they would be reviewing the matter themselves to evaluate whether the two men should be allowed to represent Ulster, and potentially Ireland, in the near future. As they investigate, top English and French clubs have been said to be registering interest in signing Jackson.

This article will look at the pros and cons of Paddy Jackson resuming his career, and will attempt to objectively decide on whether this would be the right decision for the IRFU to make. This is not an evaluation of the case, or of the guilt or innocence of the men involved. This writer is not an expert of law, nor are they all-knowing, so they will look to avoid personal convictions and opinions, seeking only an honest assessment of the issue the IRFU must deal with.

The first thing to address is the fact that Jackson was found not guilty, so therefore he will not be punished in the eyes of the law. This immediately answers the question of his eligibility, as naturally a guilty verdict would have ended any discussion on the matter. As someone who is not guilty, Jackson is free to utilise his rugby abilities for his province and country, in theory.

However, not guilty is not the same as innocent. Only a couple of people really know what happened that night, and with the evidence of the case well publicised, there could very well be some people within the IRFU who have established their own opinions of the case. This will undoubtedly be taken into account when the final decision is made.

Paddy Jackson is a player of excellent quality – of that there is no doubt. Having played for Ireland on multiple occasions already, Jackson has proven himself a useful player in the game’s most important position. Ulster have also had an extremely disappointing season without Jackson, and a player of his skill could create an optimistic feeling towards next season, if the decision was purely based on ability. However, ability is obviously a factor of minimal, if any, weight in this case.

Even though Jackson was found not guilty, nobody can argue with merit that the evidence does not paint him in a good light. The WhatsApp messages in particular were distressing at best, and abhorrent at worst. Regardless of your beliefs on his guilt or innocence, there is no defence of his comments, which are unbecoming of a representative for Ulster, and even more so for Ireland. The IRFU will need to determine if this is the kind of player they want wearing an Ulster and Ireland jersey, players who will set an example to a younger generation as role models.

Additionally, the publicity of this case has created a wave of backlash against Jackson, Olding, McIlroy and Harrison that has been felt around the country, as they have come to be symbolised as the worst aspects of men. Imagine the public uproar if they were to run onto a rugby pitch for Ulster or Ireland. Would it make sponsors such as Vodafone rethink their stance with their partnerships, especially given the connotations of Jackson representing a team who use the slogan ‘As One’ to drum up support?

The image of the IRFU may be at stake if they were to reinstate Jackson into their setup. Would they be willing to risk so much for a player who may ultimately just be part of the squad rotation? These are the questions that must be picked apart at the very top of Irish rugby.

The case may be argued that Jackson could leave Ireland, and instead sign for a team in England or France, where the case’s publicity has been significantly more subdued. On a personal level, Jackson could reinvigorate his career and avoid most of the media scrutiny at home. He could get back to a semblance of normality, albeit with inescapable baggage. The IRFU would be able to distance themselves from the controversy, but with the possible cost of losing a talented player. However, given the detailed media coverage of events, this would be very unlikely to happen.

For comparison, look at the case of Ched Evans, a soccer player in England. Convicted of rape in 2012, Evans served half his five year sentence before being released with his conviction being quashed by appeal in 2016. Evans struggled massively to find a new club, with severe backlash to his name being linked with any team. Eventually, Evans returned to action for Chesterfield before joining up with former club Sheffield United. The furore surrounding Evans may be a different case to that of Jackson, but the severity of the backlash may be on the same scale. The IRFU must ask themselves if they are willing to accept the barrage of criticism and backlash to re-employ Jackson, or if they are better to cut ties with him.

The IRFU will be expected to act in their own best interests, as well they should. Given the reputational and commercial risk associated with bringing Jackson back into the Ulster and Ireland fold, the IRFU may see fit to release both players. With their best interest in mind, the IRFU should not allow Jackson to play for them again.

This begs the question: Should Jackson be allowed to play rugby again at all? In the eyes of the law, Jackson is not guilty, and should be allowed to resume a normal life. In the eyes of a large portion of the public, Jackson should never see action on a rugby pitch again. The decision falls into the hands of rugby organisations whose individual directions determine whether Jackson will play again. Until then, deciding if Jackson is allowed to play again is based on hypotheticals and personal opinion.

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