'Marginalised' Keast forced to quit Gloucester

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The Independent Online

Gloucester's high-risk approach to the new season suffered a serious derailment last night when Andy Keast, their respected backs coach and one of the Lions' successful back-room team in South Africa in 1997, parted company with the club four days before the new Premiership season. Keast left by mutual agreement after disagreements with Philippe Saint-André, the director of rugby.

The ramifications of Keast's abrupt departure are likely to linger. A series of players' meetings have been convened at Kingsholm in recent days, culminating in what diplomats tend to describe as "frank discussions" between Saint-André and Phil Vickery, the England Test prop and club captain. Tom Walkinshaw, Gloucester's millionaire owner, was also involved. According to highly-placed sources, Walkinshaw sided with Saint-André.

In recent weeks, the former French captain has recruited an extraordinary number of foreign players, including the Argentinian wing Diego Albanese, the Italians Cristian Stoica and Frederico Pucciarello, the Fijian Koli Sewabu and the New Zealand rugby league legend Henry Paul, not to mention fellow Frenchmen Ludovic Mercier, Patrice Collazo and Dimitri Yachvili. He has also drafted in the former Heineken Cup-winning coach from Brive, Laurent Seigne.

"I'm deeply disappointed that it has come to this," Keast said after walking out. "However, I felt I was being marginalised to an ever greater degree. As I understood, Laurent and myself were the on-field coaches. In reality, my role diminished by the day, and despite considerable support from the players, I felt I had no option but to leave."

Meanwhile, serious bad blood has developed between the newly-promoted Leeds club and the South African Rugby Football Union after the Yorkshiremen announced that two Cape Town-based internationals, the goal-kicking midfielder Braam van Straaten and the tight-head prop Cobus Visagie, had signed two-year contracts at Headingley. According to Anthony Mackaiser, a member of the Sarfu management, the contracts were "null and void", and he threatened to report the matter to the International Rugby Board unless Leeds terminated negotiations immediately.

Sarfu is querying the Van Straaten deal on procedural grounds, although it privately accepts that he will join Leeds from Western Province when the Currie Cup, South Africa's domestic competition, winds up in November. More worryingly for Leeds, the South Africans consider Visagie to be completely off limits. The prop was not awarded a central Sarfu contract at the start of the southern hemisphere season, but Mackaiser insisted he was under contract with Western Province until 2003. That presumably came as a surprise to both Visagie and Leeds, for the player has repeatedly maintained he is not contracted to anyone.

"As far as we are concerned, Cobus is booked on a flight to England on Monday and he may be considered for our Premiership game at London Irish on Saturday week," said the Leeds spokesman, Phil Daly. Meanwhile, the club's director of rugby, Phil Davies, was in celebratory mood. "These signings will raise a few eyebrows in the game," he said. He certainly hit the nail on the head there.

Even if both men eventually surface in the Ridings, there may be a nasty sting in the tail for Leeds. Sarfu could demand a hefty development fee of the kind complicating Newport's pursuit of the Springbok scrum-half Joost van der Westhuizen.

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