Two Ulster and Ireland rugby stars are to be prosecuted for rape. Paddy Jackson, 25, and Stuart Olding, 24, strenuously deny the offence, which was alleged to have happened in Belfast last June.
The Irish Rugby Football Union and Ulster Rugby said that they took the allegations “extremely seriously” and announced that both players would be “relieved of their duties and obligations” until the conclusion of the court process.
Given the length of time that court proceedings take in Northern Ireland, it is likely that both will miss the entirety of the coming season.
The men were arrested and questioned last summer. They were released pending a report being submitted to prosecutors in Northern Ireland.
The Public Prosecution Service (PPS) has said that four men questioned in relation to the incident are to be prosecuted. Jackson and Olding are to be prosecuted for rape, another man is accused of sexual offences while the other faces counts of withholding information and perverting the course of justice.
Summons were served on the men on Monday. They will appear in court to face the charges in August.
Fly half Jackson has been capped for Ireland 25 times while centre Olding has played four times. The two Belfast men are established stars for Ulster Rugby.
Lawyers for Jackson and Olding stressed that both denied the charges.
Jackson’s solicitor, Kevin Winters, said: “We are very disappointed at the decision of the PPS to prosecute, given the particular circumstances and facts known in this case.
“Our client rejects completely the allegations made against him and we are confident he will be exonerated in due course.
“Given that the case will be a jury trial, it is absolutely critical that nothing is done or said in the media to prejudice due process and to that end we urge restraint on any sensationalist reporting.
“We will push for as early a hearing as possible as Patrick wants to quickly resume playing his rugby for Ulster and representing his country.”
Olding’s solicitor, Joe Rice, said that his client was determined to prove his innocence.
“It is disappointing that, over a year since the original allegation was made, the Public Prosecution Service in Northern Ireland has now issued a decision to prosecute,” said Mr Rice.
“My client has co-operated fully with the police investigation. He is a man of impeccable good character and has never brought himself to the attention of the authorities previously.
“He is not subject to any bail conditions and he’s anxious to restore his good name through the court process in Northern Ireland, where the charge against him will be fully contested.”
The PPS confirmed that a decision has been taken to prosecute four men for offences relating to an allegation of rape on June 28, 2016 in south Belfast.
A PPS spokesman said that, following a “careful review of all of the available evidence” and in accordance with its code for prosecutors, it had been decided that there was “sufficient evidence to prosecute four individuals”.
The IRFU and Ulster Rugby said that they were aware that Jackson and Olding had been charged “in relation to serious allegations made against them”.
“The players have co-operated fully and strenuously deny the charges,” said the statement.
“The IRFU and Ulster Rugby take these allegations extremely seriously.
“To allow the players time to address this matter fully, the IRFU and Ulster Rugby have agreed that they will be relieved of their duties and obligations until the conclusion of this process.
“Appropriate support structures will be put in place with them during this time.”