Exiles preparing test of character for Azam

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The Independent Online

The last time Olivier Azam played a game of rugby, all hell broke loose. Then it broke loose again, and again. By the time the dust had settled on Gloucester's tempestuous Premiership match with Newcastle in late December, two players were contemplating suspensions, the West Country club had summarily banned the Falcons director of rugby, Rob Andrew, from their premises, and the English game was in throes of its first racial abuse scandal. Sporting mayhem does not get much wilder.

Azam is back on the front-row beat following a five-week ban for punching and spitting at Epi Taione, the Newcastle flanker. (Allegations that he also called Taione a "black bastard", strongly denied by the Frenchman, are the subject of an inquiry led by Mr Michael Beloff QC). "I know my discipline must improve," said the hooker, who will play at least some part in this afternoon's highly significant set-to with London Irish at Kingsholm.

Having made all the right noises off the field, Azam will be expected to do the right things on it. The man from Tarbes is no angel, and it would be ridiculous to expect him to sprout a pair of white wings now: the day the front-row population is made up of cherubim and seraphim, rather than gnarled loose heads and cauliflower-faced tight heads, we might as well pack it in and go surfing. There again, he can be just a tad over the top. This game will be a test of the new Azam, given that the Exiles lay third in the Premiership.

Interestingly, Azam is likely to feature in an all-foreign unit. Trevor Woodman, the international loose head, is suspended, and Phil Vickery, the Lions prop, is reluctant to risk his broken right hand, which seems certain to prevent his return to the England side for next weekend's Six Nations meeting with Ireland at Twickenham. As a result, the former Stade Français prop Patrice Collazo, who makes Azam look like a house-trained poodle, and the Italian tight head Federico Pucciarello have been lined up to start.

Leaving aside Leicester, who are cruising towards a fourth straight title, this season's Premiership has been wonderfully unpredictable. Back in September, there was no earthly reason to suspect that Bath and Harlequins would be engaged in the kind of edgy, relegation-haunted contest they find themselves involved in at the Recreation Ground today. Bath will have Gareth Cooper back at scrum-half, while the Londoners recall Will Greenwood and Nick Burrows to their midfield, and Ace Tiatia at hooker.

At one point before Christmas, Northampton looked every bit as shaky as Bath and Quins: their forwards were flat, their half-backs indecisive and their threequarters unable to string two passes together. Wayne Smith, the former All Blacks coach from Canterbury, has changed all that, and if the Midlanders prevail over a confident Sale side at Franklin's Gardens today, they will probably find themselves in a Heineken Cup qualifying position.

Smith has laid down the law to his senior squad – the Italian Test centre Luca Martin and two England A caps Ali Hepher and Grant Seely, have been loaned to Bedford, while Scottish international hooker Steve Brotherstone has been put on the first train north for a spell with Newcastle – and those remaining are playing out of their skins.

Saracens, suddenly contemplating a long three months after losing Powergen Cup and Parker Pen Shield quarter-finals in consecutive weekends, face Leicester at Vicarage Road this evening knowing that defeat might leave them flirting with the dead-beats at the wrong end of the table. As Jannie de Beer, their Springbok goal-kicker, said yesterday: "A couple of defeats could see a club slip six or seven places, so we owe ourselves and our supporters a performance." The Tigers do not enjoy their trips to Watford – they have not won a League game there since December 1997.

Wasps, still without the injured Lawrence Dallaglio, omit the great man's successor as captain, Mark Denney, for tomorrow's home game with Bristol as Stuart Abbott has been given the nod in midfield.

Lewis Moody, the England Test flanker, has been cleared of a charge of deliberately stamping on the face of Ireland's Brian O'Driscoll during Leicester's Heineken Cup quarter-final victory over Leinster 13 days ago. Newcastle, whose pool match with Leinster last month had to be postponed because of a frozen pitch, have been fined £8,000 for failing to take adequate precautions against bad weather.