Contrasting fortunes for Jackson and Olding in France after Belfast rape trial

Differing character traits may have affected the rugby players’ ability to adapt to their new lives in France

Former Ireland and Ulster rugby players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding, who were acquitted of rape following a trial last year. File photographs: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Former Ireland and Ulster rugby players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding, who were acquitted of rape following a trial last year. File photographs: Niall Carson/PA Wire

 

Following their acquittal, Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding were signed up by French teams. Jackson went to Perpignan USAP, which was in France’s Top 14 or first division. Olding ended up with Brive Athletic Club, in central France, in the second division.

The trajectories of the two old friends and former accused diverged then. “Paddy Jackson landed in a team with big problems, that lost all but one of its matches. He wasn’t very good either. I think they expected more of him,” says Frédéric Bernès, who covers Irish rugby for France’s leading sports daily, L’Équipe. “After all, he played for Ulster and for Ireland. He really disappointed them.”

Olding is a different story. “I’ve seen him play several matches with Brive, and he has what it takes to play in the Top 14, no problem. He is really very good,” says Bernès.

Olding started at Brive as an outside centre, but was promoted to number 10, a flyhalf who conducts the attack – the same position that Jackson occupied at Perpignan.

Perpignan have lost 18 of their last 19 matches. With Perpignan almost certain to fall back into the second division, Jackson is able to break his two-year contract with USAP.

“He doesn’t want to play in second division, and in any case Perpignan will no longer be able to pay his salary,” says Simon Valzer of the Toulouse-based rugby newspaper Midi Olympique.

Jackson was the more experienced of the two Irish players and is believed to have commanded a salary of about €20,000 a month in Perpignan. Valzer estimates Olding’s salary at Brive to be €12,000 or less.

In early March, Jackson told the local newspaper in Perpignan, L’Indépendant, “I am still talking to the clubs who have contacted me. The London Irish? That’s a possibility. There are three or four different clubs, some in England, some in France. I just have to take a decision.”

Interviews

Jackson did not respond to repeated requests by The Irish Times for an interview. Olding initially scheduled an interview, then changed his mind.

“He’s doing really, really well,” Jeremy Davidson, the coach for Brive, who is also from Northern Ireland, said of Olding when he telephoned to cancel on Olding’s behalf.

“He doesn’t want to look back,” Davidson said by way of explanation. “He wants to look forward and he doesn’t want to be in the press. We just want to concentrate on playing rugby.”

Reporters who covered the trial said Jackson appeared angry with the media and the police, whereas Olding was more conciliatory. Though he denied raping the complainant, Olding apologised to her. These character traits may have affected the rugby players’ ability to adapt to their new lives in France.

The Belfast trial was ignored by mainstream French media

Olding has given at least two interviews to Benjamin Pommier, rugby correspondent for La Montagne, the local newspaper. “People love him in Brive,” Pommier said. “He has made a place for himself in rugby and he’s one of the best players on the team. On a human level, it’s unanimous, in the locker room and with the fans. He is warm and friendly with supporters. He talks to them, does photos with them. It’s natural, spontaneous.”

Pommier wrote a half-page profile of Olding when he arrived in Brive in June 2018. The French journalist asked about the rape trial. “Obviously it was complicated to live through,” Olding said. “But personally, I was at peace with myself. I knew I had nothing to reproach myself.”

In an interview published on March 10th, the day of the France-Ireland match, Olding evaluated the performance of the Ireland team, for which he was selected four times. “We didn’t play a very good match in Italy, but we got by,” he said, including himself in the “we” of the Irish team. “We can also thank Wales for defeating England. I know the [Ireland] team very well, since I have played with and against the majority of the guys.”

Olding said the national team was still “in the back of my mind. I want to play for my country. That is important for me. But I’ll get there by performing well with Brive. I’m aware of that, and that’s why I’m devoting myself to Brive.”

Last October, Olding extended his contract with Brive until June 2020. The team is expected to be promoted from the second division to the Top 14 next season.

The prevailing attitude in France seems to be a shoulder shrug: “They were acquitted, so what’s the problem?”

Adrien Pécout, rugby correspondent for Le Monde, says the perception in rugby circles is that Jackson and Olding “were sent into exile in France, because they couldn’t play anymore in Ireland. Their presence in Perpignan and Brive is seen as the forced exile of two players who were banished from Ireland.”

The Belfast trial was ignored by mainstream French media and covered only summarily by sports publications.

On April 14th, 2018, L’Équipe reported that Jackson’s and Olding’s contracts had been revoked because of the “degrading” comments they texted about the complainant. Online commentaries by readers convey the range of French opinion.

“They got fired because they said distasteful things,” one reader commented. “We have a lot to learn from the Irish, and not just on the pitch.”

Nonsense, another reader riposted. “They got fired because the sponsors threatened to withdraw their money. That’s all!” Bank of Ireland, a major supporter of rugby, had expressed concern about the players’ behaviour.

A similar case, also involving an Irish rugby player, attracted much more attention in France. In the early hours of March 12th, 2017, nine months after the events that led to the Belfast rape trial, three players for Grenoble had sex in a Bordeaux hotel room with a young French woman. They had consumed a great deal of rum and vodka after a match.

‘Confrontation’

As in Belfast, the question of consent was central to the case. Denis Coulson, from Dublin, Frenchman Loick Jammes and New Zealander Rory Grice claimed the woman consented. Coulson recorded part of it on his smartphone.

“She was suffocating. She was broken,” the taxi driver who picked up the student at the hotel testified at the trial in Bordeaux. “They raped me. Several of them,” she repeated during evidence.

When the judge organised a “confrontation” between complainant and the accused in June 2018, she said, “I would like them to understand, and for all guys to understand, that when a girl is sleeping you don’t stick objects inside her and you don’t have sex with her. Just because I smiled at you in the course of the evening didn’t mean I wanted it.”

Like Jackson and Olding the players quickly found jobs with other teams. Coulson went to Connacht, then transferred to Stade Français in February. The three are under judicial supervision while awaiting a verdict.

“Third half-time” after-match parties have long been a feature of French rugby. But Bernès believes rugby culture is changing: “Whether in football or rugby, the guys used to let themselves go more. There was a sort of law of silence about what happened on the road. Not only do women no longer go along with it, they file charges, which they didn’t before. And social media relay everything.”

Valzer agrees. “Everyone films. Now, the excesses get revealed. If you listen to what players said in the 1960s and 1970s, the third half-times were much more wild then. Today, most of the Top 14 teams have codes of ethics. That’s a relatively new phenomenon, in the past five years. The players are more careful. They know they can be punished, that they may not be selected for the French team.”