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An Ireland and Ulster rugby star accused of two counts of rape has had one of the charges withdrawn ahead of his trial.
Stuart Olding, 24, will now face a single rape charge when the case against him and club and international team-mate Paddy Jackson starts next month.
Olding and Jackson, 25, are accused of raping the same woman at a property in south Belfast in June last year.
They have strenuously denied the charges. Their high-profile trial is scheduled to start in January.
While Olding, of Ardenlee Street, Belfast, is now charged with one count of rape, Jackson, from Oakleigh Park, Belfast, is accused of one count of rape and one of sexual assault.
Two other men have also been returned for trial on charges connected with the incident.
Blane McIlroy, 26, from Royal Lodge Road, Ballydollaghan, Belfast, is accused of one count of exposure.
Rory Harrison, 25, from Manse Road, Belfast, is charged with perverting the course of justice and withholding information. He also attended Friday’s short hearing.
All four have pleaded not guilty and they are all on bail.
Fly-half Jackson has been capped for Ireland 25 times and centre Olding has played four times. They are established stars for Ulster Rugby.
The Irish Rugby Football Union and Ulster Rugby have said they will not play again until court proceedings conclude.
On Friday, Northern Ireland’s Public Prosecution Service said a count of vaginal rape against Olding would not proceed due to “additional forensic evidence that is now available”. He is still accused of oral rape.
A statement agreed between prosecution and defence lawyers, and issued at the direction of the judge, said: “The prosecution have today confirmed that they will no longer be proceeding with the charge of vaginal rape against Stuart Olding.
“No evidence will now be offered by the prosecution in respect of this charge and Mr Olding will be acquitted of this count of rape.
“The prosecution acknowledges that Mr Olding always denied the offence of vaginal rape and challenged the adequacy of the evidence against him in respect of this charge at two hearings during 2017 which the prosecution successfully opposed on the basis of the forensic evidence that the prosecution had obtained at that time.
“The prosecution is not proceeding with this count as a result of additional forensic evidence now available.
“Had that evidence been available at an earlier stage, the vaginal rape charge would not have been brought against Mr Olding at any time.
“The prosecution is proceeding with the remaining count of oral rape against Mr Olding.” – PA –