Walkinshaw to lead racism inquiry

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The Independent Online

Tom Walkinshaw, renowned as a shrewd operator by motor racing's highly politicised Formula One community, will take personal charge of Gloucester Rugby Club's sensitive investigation into claims that their French international hooker, Olivier Azam, racially abused the Newcastle flanker Epi Taione during Saturday's Premiership match at Kingsholm. Walkinshaw, owner and chairman of the West Country club, plans to publicise the findings of the internal inquiry on completion, regardless of any Rugby Football Union probe into the affair.

He will work alongside Ken Nottage, his managing director, and Philippe Saint-André, his coach, in an effort to establish the truth of the claims, made by Newcastle's director of rugby, Rob Andrew. Privately, Gloucester are furious that Andrew chose to go public with his accusations before discussing the issue with the Kingsholm hierarchy. Both Walkinshaw and Nottage say they would be "astonished" if the allegations were to be corroborated. "Olivier categorically denies he is a racist," Nottage said yesterday. "He maintains his innocence."

RFU officials have yet to receive an official complaint from Andrew, who may be waiting for the match referee, Roy Maybank, to forward his own report of the fighting that led to both Azam and Taione being sent off. Ridiculously, there may be three inquiries into the same imbroglio: one at Gloucester, another at Twickenham and a third by Premier Rugby, the umbrella organisation set up to represent the 12 first division clubs. By the time everyone has extracted their pound of flesh from a thoroughly depressing incident, few observers will be able to see the wood for the trees.

Investigations into the violent events at Northampton on Saturday are further advanced. The RFU confirmed yesterday that London Irish had reported a number of questionable incidents during the game at Franklin's Gardens, and that the former international referee Johnny Johnson would view the match tape over the next couple of days. Brendan Venter, the London Irish coach, accepts there is no conclusive video evidence of assaults on either Rob Hardwick or Darren Edwards, who suffered eye and elbow injuries respectively, but believes he can point to other misdemeanours.

Stade Français, last season's Heineken Cup runners-up and live candidates for this year's title, have marginalised their Australian coach, John Connolly, by appointing Fabrice Landreau as executive manager with immediate effect. The 33-year-old Test hooker will have "the last word on the composition of the team", according to Max Guazzini, the media magnate who owns the club.

Connolly, who has agreed terms with Swansea, is scheduled to leave Stade at the end of the season: Guazzini has recruited the former Springbok coach Nick Mallett as his replacement. Landreau's appointment suggests the Queenslander will surface in Wales rather earlier than originally anticipated, especially as Guazzini was quoted as criticising a lack of "communication, energy and authority" among the existing management.

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