Rugby Union: Tigers act to defuse biting row

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The Independent Online
PAUL VAN-ZANDVLIET, Newcastle's tight-head prop, appeared before Gateshead magistrates yesterday afternoon to face eight charges of selling counterfeit clothing. It was not the only problem on his mind; on Sunday, the 18-stone forward had been photographed in the throes of an unpleasant scrap with Neil Back, the Leicester flanker - an incident that threatened to land English rugby with a new biting scandal.

Van-Zandvliet denied all allegations of counterfeit trading and was bailed to re-appear in court on 16 June. Meanwhile, Leicester moved swiftly to defuse a potentially explosive disciplinary situation by publicly clearing their opponent and declaring the matter closed.

The photographs appeared to show Van-Zandvliet biting Back on the head during a prolonged dust-up between the rival packs in the closing stages of Newcastle's 27-10 victory over the Tigers. However, Back said yesterday: "I can't remember being bitten on the head at any stage. I was bitten on the thumb at some stage, but I have no complaint as I could have been caught by accident in the act of pushing a player away."

Peter Wheeler, the Leicester chief executive, added: "In these rucks and mauls, you get players pressed very tightly together and, if someone gets pressed and somebody has their mouth open, it can be misconstrued." Wheeler confirmed that Leicester would take no further steps, apart from to hold an internal investigation into the dismissal of Will Greenwood for butting.

It now remains to be seen whether the Rugby Football Union's disciplinary panel, under the chairmanship of Roy Manock, chooses to pursue the matter. Ed Morrison, the match referee, will make no mention of Van-Zandvliet's role in the violent conclusion - "I can't comment on something I didn't see and I won't make any mention of it in my report," said the Bristol official - but Manock's team have taken the occasional firm stand in recent months. Ironically, their most celebrated "examples" were Dean Ryan and Nick Popplewell, two Newcastle forwards.

It now seems certain that Greenwood will miss England's summer tour of the southern hemisphere; Morrison's report is likely to paint a damning picture of his injury-time butt on Rob Andrew and International Board guidelines suggest a 60-day ban for any misuse of the head. England are due to fly to Australia later this month and return in early in June.

This Saturday's Tetley's Bitter Cup final between Saracens and Wasps at Twickenham is likely to throw two of the highest-profile players in the game together in varying states of physical distress. Lawrence Dallaglio, the Wasps captain, is a definite starter despite a shoulder injury that jeopardises his England tour place while Francois Pienaar, the Saracens player-coach, says he has a 70 per cent of risking his dodgy hamstring. "I'm desperate to play, but it's a matter of what is best for the team," said Pienaar yesterday. "I'm no more than 70 per cent fit, but that is a good 20 per cent better than this time last week. We'll make a final decision tomorrow."

Pienaar's inspirational participation would be of incalculable benefit to Saracens, and there were signs yesterday that he will start the match. So too might Kyran Bracken, the scrum-half, whose groin injury improved sufficiently to allow him a full training session yesterday.

The only thing that will definitely be missing from the weekend showpiece is the celebration music habitually played by both London clubs when a try is scored. "The RFU don't think it's quite the thing," said Geoff Huckstep, the Wasps chief executive. Most intelligent life on the planet might, for once, agree with them.

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