Northern Ireland

Rugby on trial: Ulster introduce behavioural classes

Kingspan Stadium, Belfast Image copyright Getty Images

Ulster Rugby has introduced behavioural classes which include discussions on sexual consent for all professional and academy players, BBC News NI can reveal.

About 65 players will take the classes which will be delivered throughout the season by trainers from Women's Aid NI.

The partnership developed in the wake of the rape trial earlier this year involving two former Ulster players.

Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding were acquitted of all charges.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding now play rugby in France

Ulster players already receive training on topics like consent, alcohol and social media use in classes run by the IRFU and Rugby Players Ireland (RPI).

Professional and academy players from Munster, Leinster and Connaught also take part in the IRFU and RPI classes.

New modules have been developed by the IRFU and RPI and added to an existing programme of classes on aspects of player welfare.

They have been drawn up in consultation with an English company which specialises in preventing what it calls "harmful sexual behaviour".

Image caption Bryn Cunningham said the classes at Ulster Rugby would cover a variety of social situations

Speaking exclusively to BBC News NI, Ulster Rugby's Director of Operations Bryn Cunningham said the Women's Aid course would be "in-depth and intensive".

"The player group will go through probably five to six fairly intensive three to four hour sessions on one of our down days," he said.

"That will cover a variety of different areas.

"A lot of it will be around social life and social engagement - whenever players go out, how they conduct themselves and how they can protect themselves as well.

"It could be situations with the opposite sex, it could be situations where it's with other individuals who want to be antagonistic or want to start a fight.

"A lot of material within the courses will be about behaviours but it will get into much wider topics as well.

"This is about educating them in how to make good choices.

"It would be remiss of any professional sport not to fully engage with as much support as they possibly could from outside sources around making correct decisions."

Image caption The classes will be held in the education room at the Kingspan Stadium

A number of Ulster rugby staff are also to be trained as "social guardians" to enable them to address any off-the-field concerns players may have.

Following the trial Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding had their Ulster contracts revoked and left the club.

Mr Cunningham admitted to BBC News NI that Ulster Rugby's reputation had been damaged by the trial and events surrounding it.

"Irrespective of what happened we knew that there would be reputational damage from it," he said.

"We were prepared for that and we have a job still to do to repair some of that."

Image caption Jan Melia said they were creating a bespoke programme of classes

The chief executive of Women's Aid Federation Northern Ireland, Jan Melia, described the public interest in the trial as a "#MeToo moment for Northern Ireland".

"That is what we have taken and are working with - that momentum and the drive for change," she said.

"Rugby was obviously targeted because it was about rugby at that point in time, but there is a much broader conversation."

Ms Melia said Women's Aid staff were involved in some of the protests after the trial, but said they had been working with Ulster Rugby since contact was made between the organisations at that time.

She said the training would be led by Women's Aid staff and involve a mixture of presentations, conversations and question and answer sessions - but declined to go into detail on what the classes for the Ulster players would involve.

"We've been developing a programme with them to work around," she said.

"It's a bespoke programme which builds on what we do in communities anyway.

"The broad framework is what's safe and what isn't and how do we be safe and if there's an issue how do we talk about that issue.

"The intricacies of that are going to depend on the class and from those involved in the class as well."

Healthy interactions

Although Women's Aid has designed bespoke classes for Ulster Rugby, Ms Melia said that some of the content would be based on training they had delivered for other organisations.

"They present what is a healthy relationship, they present conversations about what is consent, they present conversations about how to recognise when a situation isn't as it should be," she said.

"And that work we do with young people, we do with children and we do that work with adults.

"And it's all based around the same basic principles around what constitutes healthy and unhealthy interactions - sexual interactions - and in terms of relationships as well.

"When an issue takes place an organisation needs to learn from that and that's what we're trying to support Ulster Rugby to do as we would with any organisation.

They will be run in addition to RPI's current player welfare and education programmes.

Women's Aid are one of a number of organisations who co-ordinate the 24-hour domestic violence and sexual violence helpline, for which the number is 0808 802 1414.

Robbie Meredith presents 'Rugby on Trial' on BBC Radio Ulster at 12.30 GMT on Sunday 18 November.