Judge to head RFU 'race abuse' inquiry

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The Independent Online

The first phase of the Olivier Azam affair was skilfully negotiated by the Rugby Football Union yesterday, but the second phase will prove immeasurably more perilous. Allegations that the Gloucester hooker racially abused the Newcastle flanker Epi Taione during a tempestuous Premiership match at Kingsholm last month are to be the subject of a major investigation, overseen by a senior legal figure. It promises to be one of the most painful few weeks in the history of the game in England.

Both Azam and Taione appeared before an RFU disciplinary panel yesterday, and both were suspended as a result of being sent off in the early stages of the game. Azam, who admitted charges of punching the Newcastle forward Jon Dunbar and spitting in Taione's face, was banned for five weeks from 29 December. Taione, who pleaded guilty to punching Azam, for three weeks from the same date. Azam, a French international, could theoretically play in his country's opening Six Nations match with Italy in the first week of February. Taione, who has played Test rugby for Tonga, will be available for Newcastle's Powergen Cup quarter-final at Leeds next weekend.

However, the more serious issue between the two men – the accusation that Azam called Taione "a black bastard", a charge the hooker fiercely denies – has yet to be resolved. Yesterday's panel, chaired by the Chief Naval Judge Advocate Commodore Jeff Blackett, decided against addressing the subject. "At the beginning of the hearing, there was an allegation of racial abuse put before us," Blackett said. "We addressed it by saying we were going to 'park' it. We have made no adjudication whatever on what form any verbal provocation took."

Robert Horner, the RFU's disciplinary officer, said the forthcoming inquiry would be "largely independent". It is likely to be headed by a High Court judge, who will almost certainly be joined by the chief executive of a Premiership club and a member of the RFU council. "There will be a full investigation into all aspects of this match, which has attracted a degree of notoriety," Horner said, wryly. "I cannot guarantee it will be completed within the period of Azam's suspension, although I would like to settle this matter as quickly as possible. I do not want to prejudice anything by imposing an artificial time limit."

Horner acknowledged the pitfalls and obstacles lining the RFU's path over the coming month or so. "Racial abuse has become a very emotive issue," he said. "It is a little like turning the clock back eight centuries, to the days of witchcraft. If someone was accused of being a witch, they were deemed to be one until they managed, usually through unpleasant means, to prove themselves innocent. We are almost at a stage where an allegation of racial abuse tends to stick, without there being a great deal of evidence behind it. This is the problem we have had over the last 10 days or so."

He also suggested that Gloucester's internal inquiry into the affair, a 65-page account of which was sent to the RFU last weekend, might be flawed. "I believe Gloucester made assumptions as to when the alleged abuse started, and I am not sure those assumptions were correct," he said. "The people interviewed by the club may have been the wrong people." If this is the case, the RFU inquiry team will be forced to gather their own evidence from scratch – a process that could take several weeks.

Azam, who was accompanied by the Gloucester managing director, Ken Nottage, and the team manager, Pete Glanville, said yesterday's hearing had been conducted in a "civilised and regular manner". Nottage indicated that relations between the two clubs, which hit rock bottom when the Gloucester owner, Tom Walkinshaw, summarily banned the Newcastle director of rugby, Rob Andrew, from Kingsholm, had improved. Andrew, who made the initial allegations against Azam, met with the Gloucester contingent before the disciplinary hearing.

Taione, who has made no public comment since his dismissal at Kingsholm, left the hearing without uttering a word, as did Andrew and the two senior Newcastle players who accompanied Taione, the respected Samoan internationals Pat Lam and Va'aiga Tuigamala.