Italians appoint Frenchman Berbizier as new head coach

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The Independent Online

Pierre Berbizier has been confirmed as the new head coach of the Italy national team. The former France international replaces the New Zealander John Kirwan, who left his position earlier this month after his team lost every game in this year's Six Nations.

Pierre Berbizier has been confirmed as the new head coach of the Italy national team. The former France international replaces the New Zealander John Kirwan, who left his position earlier this month after his team lost every game in this year's Six Nations.

Berbizier was one of the favourites to replace Kirwan and has signed a two-and-a-half year contract with the Azzurri.

Giancarlo Dondi, president of the Italian Rugby Federation (FIR), said they appointed Berbizier to lead them into the 2007 World Cup. "I believe we have signed one of the best coaches in Europe," he said. "Our federation sees in Pierre Berbizier the right person to lead the Azzurri after John Kirwan. He is a coach with great experience and a strong personality.

"He signed a contract until the World Cup in France. It is important for us to have a long-term manager, especially for our ambitions. The FIR believe Berbizier will improve our gameplay and hopefully more and more victories will arrive, starting from the next Six Nations."

The Lions head coach, Sir Clive Woodward, is going to need all his powers of persuasion and diplomacy in order to secure the release of two key members of his 44-strong party from their French clubs.

The Wales captain and full-back Gareth Thomas plays for Toulouse, while his compatriot, fly-half Stephen Jones plays for Clermont Auvergne, and Woodward's problem is that both players will be involved in the French Championship on the last weekend of May. By then the Lions party will have left for New Zealand.

And while that weekend sees the final league matches of the Championship, there will still be play-offs in early June.

Woodward told BBC Wales yesterday: "Sometimes you've got to sit back and work with the clubs, so possibly those two players may be coming out a week later. The professional game has moved on; the Lions series is all about the Test matches. We've got to speak to the two clubs but also common sense has got to come into this."

Thomas was yesterday given the all-clear to resume full training after an X-ray showed that the thumb he fractured in the Six Nations match against France had healed completely, and he is expected to take part in Sunday's Heineken Cup semi-final against Leicester at the Walkers Stadium.

Another Lion, Martin Corry has been nominated for an award by the Professional Rugby Players Association. England stand-in captain Corry is one of five names put forward for the prestigious Players' Player of the Year, the others are Leicester's Andy Goode, Sale's Mark Cueto and Sebastien Chabal, and the captain of Worcester, Pat Sanderson.

The young player category sees five of English rugby's brightest prospects contesting top honours - the Leeds centre Chris Bell, Newcastle's Mathew Tait, the Leicester back Ollie Smith and his Tigers' team-mate Harry Ellis, plus Bath prop Matt Stevens.

The Welsh Rugby Union is sticking to its policy of zero tolerance over the verbal and physical abuse of match officials.

Yesterday the WRU disciplinary committee slapped a two-year ban on three-quarter Darren Ebenezer, who plays for Glais in Division Four South West of the Welsh League after the player was found guilty of throwing a kicking tee at the referee during the game between Ystradgynlais and Glais on 26 March. The missile hit the match official in the face. Ebenezer will be able to resume playing on 13 April 2007.

There was also an eight-week ban given to Marc Jones of Rhigos for verbally abusing the referee in a match against Taffs Well. He will be allowed back on 8 August.

Newcastle yesterday signed Italy's giant prop Tino Paoletti, 27, from National League One side Plymouth Albion. The 6ft Paoletti, who has 17 caps and weighs almost 21 stone, has agreed a two-year deal.

Falcons props Ian Peel, Micky Ward and David Wilson, meanwhile, have all agreed new two-year contracts at Kingston Park.

The finals of the European Challenge Cup and the European Shield will be staged at the 12,400 capacity Kassam Stadium in Oxford on 21 May. The finalists will be decided this weekend, with English interest centring on Sale who entertain Connacht in the Cup, and Worcester who tackle Leeds in the Shield.

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