Irishman Denis Coulson (centre) is one of three players accused of rape
Irishman Denis Coulson (centre) is one of three players accused of rape AFP

The trial of a group of rugby players accused of gang raping a student after a 2017 match by leading French team Grenoble was to open Monday.

But just hours before its planned start, two defence lawyers said the proceedings could be deferred over the absence of one of the defendants, Irishman Denis Coulson.

French sports publication L'Equipe reported Coulson had been hurt in a traffic accident last week.

A source close to the defence team told AFP that Coulson's lawyer had requested that the trial be deferred or his case be treated separately at a later date.

The trial in the southwestern city Bordeaux, scene of the alleged rape, is expected to turn on whether the young woman, now 27, was too drunk to consent to sex.

"What is consent? At what point is it diminished or even totally absent?" one of her lawyers, Anne Cadiot-Feidt, told AFP.

Identified only as V., the woman has opted for anonymity, her lawyers say.

Former Grenoble players Coulson, 30, New Zealander Rory Grice, 34, and 29-year-old Frenchman Loick Jammes are accused of raping her.

Two former team-mates, 31-year-old Irishman Chris Farrell -- a member of Ireland's Grand Slam-winning 2018 Six Nations squad -- and New Zealander Dylan Hayes, 30, are being tried for failing to prevent a crime.

V. and two friends encountered the rugby players in a Bordeaux bar after the Grenoble team played a Top 14 championship match on March 11, 2017 -- a few months before the #MeToo movement was sparked in the United States.

The group guzzled cocktails including mojitos and vodka and Red Bull as they moved on to a nightclub.

V. said she remembered nothing about how the night ended after leaving the nightclub.

She got into a taxi with Coulson and headed for the players' hotel around 4:00 am.

A toxicologist's report found that V. had between 2.2 and 3.0 grams of alcohol per litre of blood at that point -- well over 10 times the maximum allowed when driving in France.

Surveillance footage from her arrival at the hotel shows her struggling to stand as Coulson supported her.

He also appeared to twice prevent her from getting back into the taxi.

V. said she woke up naked on a bed with a crutch in her vagina at around 7:00 am alongside two naked men and others still wearing clothes.

Her lawyer Cadiot-Feidt said arguments in the trial would likely focus on "the question of the victim's responsibility in a situation where she voluntarily put herself in a state reducing or eliminating consent."

"We often ask questions about the victim's consent and not at all about how attackers judge their consent," she added.

Testimony from the defendants and witnesses, as well as a video Coulson filmed during a sex act, suggested V. performed oral sex and the defendants penetrated her with objects including a bottle and crutches.

Coulson, Jammes and Grice have all acknowledged engaging in sex acts with V., but insist they were consensual.

Jammes's lawyer Denis Dreyfus said he too expected the hearings to turn on the difficulty of securing consent when "all parties are drunk".

"What's for sure is that it's a tragedy for both sides," he added.

"This isn't the trial of rapist rugby players, it's the trial of alcohol," said Corinne Dreyfus-Schmidt, representing Coulson.

The "climate" around the #MeToo movement "was not favourable to understanding" in such cases, she added.

"All these young people drinking until they're in an absolute state is the real problem in this case," Dreyfus-Schmidt said.

The woman's lawyer Cadiot-Feidt criticised a "high level of tolerance" to alcohol-fuelled incidents among some French rugby clubs and supporters.

"A lot of people still think that the woman should just not have gone out, just shouldn't have had anything to drink, just shouldn't have put herself in that situation," she said.

She said she hoped the case would help better prevent sexual violence within certain sports cultures.

Sports "clubs have their charters, which are clear", she said. "But in practice a lot remains to be done."

A similar case in Northern Ireland sparked protests after a court in 2018 acquitted two Ireland rugby players accused of raping a woman in Belfast two years earlier.

New Zealand flanker Rory Grice faces rape charges
New Zealand flanker Rory Grice faces rape charges AFP