Steele tells Exiles to 'put own house in order'

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The Independent Online

Shortly before Christmas, the Rugby Football Union initiated moves to prevent high-profile figures speaking out of turn ­ or speaking at all, if the subject matter happened to concern the England Test team. Not for the first time, the Union is whistling in the wind. Yesterday, John Steele, the Northampton director of rugby, subjected London Irish to the mother and father of a tongue-lashing as the bad feeling between the clubs reached new depths of mutual dislike.

Steele raked over the ashes of two controversial London Irish episodes, one of them fairly ancient and the other very recent, in response to the Exiles' public criticism of Northampton's approach to last Saturday's Premiership match between the clubs at Franklin's Gardens ­ a rough-house of an encounter in which the Midlanders prevailed, 24-15. "They seemed to want to criticise everything and everybody after last weekend's game, and I think they should look to put their own house in order before speaking out in this way," Steele said.

He went on to raise the issue of the Exiles' financial dealings, claiming they had "failed to pay debts from the merger of London Irish, London Scottish and Richmond three years ago, despite money being provided for them to do so". He also pointed to last month's revelations that London Irish's policy of substituting all three front row players during the second halves of matches this season flew in the face of regulations laid down by the International Rugby Board. "When questioned on this, they placed the blame at the RFU's door," he continued. His words were aimed directly at his opposite number at London Irish, Brendan Venter, who ruffled plenty of Northampton feathers by suggesting that injuries to two of his players, the prop Rob Hardwick and the scrum-half Darren Edwards, had been inflicted deliberately.

When the match video failed to shed light on either incident, Venter promptly alerted the RFU to other alleged misdemeanours. These are now being considered by the citing commissioner, Johnny Johnson, who is expected to report his findings today.

If Steele felt provoked by Venter, who also accused Northampton's International scrum-half Matthew Dawson of "manipulating" referees, it was nevertheless an astonishingly intemperate outburst ­ not least because he is considered one of the calmer figures among the Premiership élite. A former London Scottish coach, Steele was in charge at the Athletic Ground when the financially-challenged club was rail-roaded out of Premiership existence in 1999 and may not have forgiven the Irish their role in his old club's demise.

Northampton have included John Leslie, their senior inside centre, on the bench for tomorrow night's Heineken Cup match with Glasgow at Hughenden. The Scotland international has been struggling with knee and ankle injuries, but is now fit to challenge for a place in his country's Calcutta Cup match with England in Edinburgh on 2 February. Glasgow officials are hopeful of the Northampton match going ahead, despite freezing conditions in the city.

Of the matches scheduled for Saturday, Swansea's meeting with Bath at St Helen's is causing the most concern and a decision will be made tomorrow to give broadcasters a chance to switch games. Cardiff are confident that their match with Montferrand will take place.

In the Parker Pen Shield tournament, Sale have called in a team of contractors to treat the surface at Heywood Road ahead of their fixture with Narbonne.

Meanwhile, Gloucester are close to completing their inquiry into claims that Olivier Azam, their French hooker, racially abused Newcastle's Tongan flanker, Epi Taione, during last weekend's bitter contest at Kingsholm. Tom Walkinshaw, the Gloucester owner, and Ken Nottage, the managing director, have conducted a series of interviews with witnesses, and expect to make a statement before the Shield game with GRAN Parma on Saturday. By then, they will have questioned Azam at length and will also have consulted their director of rugby, Philippe Saint-André.

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