Newcastle accuse Azam of racist abuse

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The Independent Online

Rugby Union's fledgling disciplinary system, riddled with inconsistencies exposed by a steady stream of high-profile cases over the last 12 months, faces another severe test of its credibility following an explosive round of matches in the English Premiership. Two directors of rugby, Rob Andrew of Newcastle and Brendan Venter of London Irish, were so incensed by incidents in the games involving their respective clubs that they will make official protests to Twickenham, thereby ensuring that the sport enters the new year in a blaze of negative publicity.

Andrew's complaint is by far the more serious. He accused the French international hooker, Olivier Azam, of racially abusing the Tongan flanker, Epi Taione, during the Gloucester-Newcastle match at Kingsholm on Saturday ­ a contest disfigured by outbreaks of communal fighting, after which Azam and Taione were sent off by the referee, Roy Maybank. According to Andrew, Azam called Taione "a black bastard" and spat at him; he also claimed that members of the crowd taunted his player. For his part, Azam has vigorously denied Andrew's allegations, and Gloucester officials drew attention to a jagged 6cm gash on Azam's nose.

Venter used his after-match address to accuse unnamed Northampton players of punching Rob Hardwick, the London Irish prop, into oblivion after six minutes of a highly physical match at Franklin's Gardens, and kicking the scrum-half Darren Edwards at a second-half ruck, leaving the Welshman with a dislocated elbow. Venter, who watched video footage of the incidents on Saturday, admitted that the film was "unhelpful" in identifying the alleged culprits. However, he added: "There are a number of other incidents on the tape, and I will be referring them to the Rugby Football Union's citing commissioner for his consideration."

All this follows an unpleasant interlude at last Thursday's match between Leicester and Sale at Welford Road. Alex Sanderson, the Sale No 8, was accused of spitting at a group of Leicester forwards following a punch-up in the final minutes of the game. For his part, Sanderson claimed he was kicked by a rival player as he walked back to the dressing-room. Robert Horner, the RFU's disciplinary officer, has declared an interest in viewing any available video footage.

Horner will have plenty to occupy his thoughts over the coming week, for the Azam case, in particular, will require delicate handling. The Frenchman denied Andrew's allegations during a private conversation with Gloucester's director of rugby, Philippe Saint-André, and has also taken legal advice. He and Taione will eventually appear before an RFU disciplinary panel, by which time Gloucester should have completed their own internal inquiry. If the findings of that inquiry run counter to the RFU's findings ­ the union's rules allow them virtually unlimited powers of punishment under a catch-all "disrepute" clause ­ the issue might easily end up in court.

"The club would take a very serious view of anything related to racial abuse," said Ken Nottage, the Gloucester managing director. "We are a multi-cultural club, and this is something we would not tolerate. Our own investigation is up and running as of now: we will speak to Azam, to match stewards, to players from both sides who may have witnessed what happened, and also to people who were in the crowd. We will also study video footage. We want this conducted properly."

Nottage said he would be "astonished" if Azam were proved guilty as accused. Andrew was adamant, however. "The sooner this sort of thing is rooted out, the better," he said. "We are developing the game in this country, we are getting bigger crowds and we don't want people getting out of control.

"Epi was in tears in the dressing-room. He is not a violent player; he plays the game with a smile on his face. This is the first time I've experienced racism in rugby, anywhere in the world. I'm disgusted."

Such controversy is relatively rare in the union game, although New Zealand notoriously colluded with South Africa's apartheid regime by refusing to pick Maoris or Pacific islanders in their tour parties to the republic in the years before 1970. Gerald Cordle, the Cardiff wing, leapt into the crowd à la Eric Cantona to remonstrate with a supporter who racially abused him during a cup tie with Aberavon Quins in 1987, and other black players ­ Ralph Knibbs of Bristol, Glenn Webbe of Bridgend, Victor Ubogu of Bath ­ were the targets of isolated insults during their careers. Four years ago, the Springbok coach Andre Markgraaf was forced to resign for making racist remarks.

This, though, is different: for the first time in the professional era, the RFU must deal with an official complaint of racial abuse in the full glare of the public spotlight. It will be a difficult January in the committee rooms of Twickenham.

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