New Zealand hit by racial abuse claims

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The Independent Online

Newcastle, out of the Heineken Cup but very much in the news, finally lodged a formal complaint of racial abuse against Gloucester's French Test hooker Olivier Azam yesterday, just a few hours after rugby's most pressing issue had been given a disturbing new twist on the other side of the world. Bob Challenor, a member of the Fijian union, accused unnamed members of the New Zealand seven-a-side squad of abusing his countrymen during last weekend's international event in Chile.

New Zealand edged past Fiji 19-17 in a violent semi-final in Santiago – armed police took the field to separate brawling players – and after the tournament, Challenor was quoted in the Fijian press as saying: "The New Zealanders have been doing it [indulging in racial abuse] for a long time and getting away with it. A free-for-all brawl is unacceptable. But it is not only the brawl that should be investigated here, but also what caused the commotion."

Back in England, Twickenham officials acknowledged receipt of Newcastle's complaint, which arrived at the Rugby Football Union offices nine days after Azam's alleged abuse of the Falcons' Tongan flanker Epeli Taione – an accusation strenuously denied by the Frenchman – and two days after both Azam and Tom Walkinshaw, the Gloucester owner, demanded a public apology from Newcastle's director of rugby, Rob Andrew, who first made the allegations.

A union spokesman said he expected Newcastle to produce supporting evidence on Thursday when Azam and Taione appear before a disciplinary panel to answer charges of fighting.

One way or another, it promises to be a busy week for the Geordies. Newcastle will play their postponed Heineken Cup fixture with Leinster at Headingley in Leeds this evening – they felt the pitch at their own Kingston Park ground was perfectly playable on Sunday, but the Irishmen disagreed – and will make their final European appearance of the season at Newport on Friday night.

Although Andrew's team have been denied home advantage against one of the form teams in the British Isles, it may be of benefit in the long run: the change of venue will allow them to familiarise themselves with Headingley before next week's Powergen Cup quarter-final with Leeds.

Two other European fixtures, both in the increasingly competitive Parker Pen Shield, have been rearranged for tomorrow evening. Sale, favourites to win Pool 4 and move on to the knock-out stage, take on last season's beaten finalists, Narbonne, at Heywood Road, while the Italians of Overmach Parma have conceded national advantage, as well as home advantage, by agreeing to play Pontypridd at Gloucester. Parma could not guarantee a playable surface at their own Stadio del Rugby.

Meanwhile, Wasps are expected to confirm Warren Gatland, the former All Black hooker, as their new forwards coach later this week. Gatland, who coached Ireland in 37 Tests before being unceremoniously dumped in November, has rejected job offers in his native New Zealand and may link up with the Londoners before their next Premiership match at Newcastle on 27 January.

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