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'I was unbelievably naive' - Best opens up on regret for role in Belfast rape trial

‘It was never, ever my intention to cause any more distress on what was a very, very difficult day for that poor girl anyway.’

Former Ulster and Ireland captain Rory Best.
Former Ulster and Ireland captain Rory Best.
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

RORY BEST HAS expressed his regret for his role in the 2018 Belfast trial which saw his Ulster and Ireland team-mates Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding acquitted of rape, stating his belief that he was “used” by Jackson’s legal team and unwittingly inflicted “more distress” on the female complainant.

Best, then captain of both Ulster and Ireland, was set to be a character witness for Jackson later in the trial. He appeared at Belfast Crown Court on its second day — the first in which the young woman gave evidence against the defence.

The 37-year-old told Off The Ball’s Joe Molloy that he was “unbelievably naive” to believe he could attend the trial as a private citizen rather than in his role as Ireland captain, and that he should have sought independent legal advice rather than accept that of Jackson’s legal team whom he now believes used him as “a pawn” in their defence case.

Best also stressed that, despite the public backlash which almost led to his giving up the Ireland captaincy, he was not a victim to anywhere near the same extent as the “five young people” directly involved in the trial, and he doesn’t seek sympathy after making what he now believes were several errors in judgement throughout the process.

“Paddy asked me, and as a character witness, all you’re really doing is testifying to the character of the person you know,” Best said. “You’re not involved in anything, in any case, of what the accusations are. It’s just to say that, ‘I know this guy on a personal or professional — or both, whichever it is — level, and this is what I deem his character to be whenever he’s with me.’

And I think that as someone I got quite friendly with from an Ulster point of view and as a team-mate, whenever he asked me to do it, I kind of felt that… Look, I think when a friend is in need and he asks you to sort of do something that, if you get to a stage of sentencing or not sentencing, might be able to help him, I think it’s really hard to turn your back on a friend no matter what your view on the ins and outs of it is.

“And that was ultimately it. I knew that as a captain that I was somebody that he looked up to, and he was somebody that as a player and a person, I spent a lot of time with around the team environment that I got on very well with.”

Best condemned the derogatory WhatsApp messages that were exchanged between the accused in the aftermath of the incident at Jackson’s home on the morning of 28 June 2016, describing them as “grossly wrong” but claiming they were ultimately unreflective of Jackson’s character as he knew it.

On same morning as those messages were exchanged, the complainant had text her friend saying: “I’m not going to the police. I’m not going up against Ulster Rugby.”

Best’s presence at the trial a day after these messages were made public was perceived by many to be an intimidation tactic on behalf of Jackson’s legal team given the Ireland captain’s standing in society. When quizzed by Molloy on the picture painted by his attendance, he expressed sorrow for his handling of the situation — including his “naive” decision to take the advice of Jackson’s representatives at face value.

Best explained that he had been advised by Jackson’s legal team to attend the trial in order to “hear both sides” of the story, and that “it felt reasonable to me to get a feel for what was going on and to sort of hear, to make sure I could still testify to his character”.

However, he soon felt that his presence and the subsequent national furore “turned it into a circus” and caused more distress for all of the involved parties. That, he said, was his biggest regret. It also led to his being told by Jackson’s legal team that his prospective services as a character witness would no longer be required.

“I would never have went to that court case knowing… I didn’t go there as the Irish captain,” Best said. “I went there as a friend who was just sort of seeing whether I definitely still wanted to be a character witness.

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“I’ll be the first to admit that I was unbelievably naive to think that that wasn’t the way it would be brought across, but I assure you that was never my intention.

Ultimately, I’m a trusting person and I look back now and I do think I was used. I didn’t ever think that would be the case, but I’ve no doubt it suited the defence to have me there and I think I became a pawn in it. And now, in hindsight, looking at that, it was bad advice for me to be there. I was naive enough to think that I could go there as a friend. And look, I accept exactly what you [Joe Molloy] are saying, and ultimately you go to all these roles as the captain and I don’t know why I thought this would be different. But, look, ultimately I did, and that is one of the things that I’m very sorry for, because it was never, ever my intention to cause any more distress on what was a very, very difficult day for that poor girl anyway.

“I know now in hindsight that was wrong,” added Best.

I shouldn’t have been there. I didn’t [take independent legal advice] and that was more mistakes because I think when you’re a reasonably trusting person you kind of think that, ‘Oh look, if they’re saying this then it must be for my benefit.’ It turned out it wasn’t. My benefit or detriment was irrelevant to it but it turned it into a circus and it put a lot more pressure onto something that was very sensitive.

“Like I’ve said before, that is definitely the thing that I regret the most and to turn up the magnifying glass on it is just something that… I suppose you say you live and learn but this was a big thing you had to live and learn from.”

The 2018 Grand Slam winner added: “I don’t want people to think that I want them to feel sorry for me, because it was my mistake. But also, there are five people that are trying to rebuild their lives that have been through a lot more than me.”

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