Azam in dock with Premiership bad boys

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The Independent Online

Four international players will be hauled before the Rugby Football Union bench in London next Thursday as Twickenham officials attempt to minimise the damage caused by the last round of Zurich Premiership matches – a series of encounters so far removed from the seasonal spirit that they might have been organised by Scrooge himself.

Alex Sanderson of Sale, Matt Stewart of Northampton, Epi Taione of Newcastle and Gloucester's Olivier Azam, the new bogeyman of the domestic game, will appear in the dock, charged with offences ranging from fighting to spitting.

As things stand, there will be no charge of racial abuse levelled at Azam, who has been accused by Newcastle of calling Taione a "black bastard" during the match at Kingsholm last Saturday, a remark Azam vigorously denies making. Newcastle's director of rugby, Rob Andrew, has yet to lodge a complaint with the RFU, although he insists he will do so as soon as all available evidence has been gathered. Andrew may wait until Monday, by which time Gloucester will have announced the findings of their internal inquiry into the allegations.

Andrew can wait as long as he likes before contacting the RFU. Under Premiership rules, clubs must report instances of suspected foul play to a citing officer within 72 hours. However, there is no time limit governing complaints of non-visual offences, such as racial abuse. Given the stink generated by the Azam affair, the RFU would prefer to deal with the case in its entirety next week. At present, though, a second hearing is likely.

Azam and Taione are currently charged with fighting, having been sent off at Kingsholm. "The video clearly shows Azam spitting in Epi's face, and that this kicked off the fight between them," Andrew said yesterday. "Gloucester seem to be suggesting we have made this up, but that is certainly not the case." If found guilty, both men would face a minimum three-week suspension.

Sanderson, the 22-year-old flanker who made his England debut against Romania in November, stands accused of spitting at an unidentified opponent in the final minutes of Sale's match at Leicester eight days ago. "We watched the official video of the game and couldn't identify anything to suggest Alex had been guilty of spitting at anyone," said Jim Mallinder, Sale's director of rugby. "We have now viewed a second video, and our opinion remains unchanged. We will therefore vigorously defend him in this matter."

Stewart, meanwhile, is charged with using his fist and, more seriously, his knee to assault a London Irish player during another of last weekend's exceptionally physical games. The Scotland tight-head prop was reported by the London Irish player-coach Brendan Venter, who highlighted a series of other incidents that have not been pursued by the citing commissioner. Venter's actions drew a bitter response from the Northampton hierarchy, and the Midlanders will be even more upset if the disciplinary panel finds Stewart guilty and bans him for a month – a punishment that would threaten his participation in the Calcutta Cup match with England on 2 February.

Scott Quinnell, the Wales captain, will not start Llanelli's eagerly-awaited Heineken Cup game in Perpignan tonight: the Lions No 8 is struggling with hamstring trouble, and has been named among the replacements.

A Llanelli victory would set up a mighty encounter with Leicester at Stradey Park tomorrow week, but Gareth Jenkins, the Scarlets coach, cannot afford to think beyond events at Stade Aime Giral this evening. Perpignan are among the form teams in France: unbeaten at home in the French championship, they went within a point of Leicester in October, having beaten the European champions in a pre-season friendly.

Tonight's Pool 5 match between Glasgow, who have a remote mathematical chance of reaching the knock-out stage, and Northampton, who have no chance at all, has been moved to Partick Thistle's Firhill stadium because of a frozen pitch at Hughenden.

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