Eye-gouging (rugby union)

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Eye-gouging is a serious offence in rugby union where a player uses hands or fingers to inflict pain in an opponent's eyes. The game's laws refer to it as "contact with eyes or the eye area of an opponent" but such incidents are usually referred to as "eye-gouging" among players and in the media.[1]


The laws of rugby union, as written by World Rugby, define foul play as: "Anything a player does within the playing enclosure that is against the letter and spirit of the Laws of the Game. It includes obstruction, unfair play, repeated infringements, dangerous play and misconduct which is prejudicial to the Game".[2] Specifically, they state that "A player must not do anything that is dangerous to the opponent".[3]

WR Regulations provide for punishment for contact with eyes or the eye area of an opponent.[4]

Although this is usually called "eye-gouging" by the media, fans and players, the term "gouging" is not used in World Rugby's laws or regulations, which do list degrees of gravity of the offence. World Rugby themselves have used the term in a 2009 statement, when the body was known as the International Rugby Board (IRB): "The IRB are firmly of the view there is no place in rugby for illegal or foul play and the act of eye-gouging is particularly heinous".[5]

Scales of the offence[edit]

Following two separate high-profile test match incidents, involving Schalk Burger and Sergio Parisse, during the same week in June 2009, the IRB stated that it would review the sanction structure for this type of offence "in order to send out the strongest possible message that such acts will not be tolerated".[5]

The regulations provide a scale of seriousness:[4]

  • Lower end: up to 12-week ban.
  • Mid range: up to 18-week ban.
  • Top end: greater than 24-week ban.

The maximum sanction is a 156-week (3 year) ban.

In sevens, bans are officially expressed in numbers of matches instead of weeks, reflecting the schedule of the Sevens World Series for men and women, as well as other major events for sevens teams.


In the early days of rugby, eye gouging was commonplace and happened mainly in the scrum due to a lack of control by referees and the opportunity the scrum offered for players to commit foul play due to the way the scrum is formed.[6] The rising amount of foul play involving eye gouging eventually lead to the founding of the Rugby Football Union to control rugby and to reduce the amount of foul play.[6] Eye-gouging then began to disappear from the early game as the laws of rugby became stricter due to English public school students starting to play rugby.[7] After then foul play including eye-gouging became largely unspoken of and rugby authorities often ignored complaints of eye-gouging. This was due to authorities expecting players to deal with it themselves as it was claimed to be part of the nature of the game and was often viewed as a joke.[8] In 1992, Richard Loe made contact with Greg Cooper's eyes while playing in the National Provincial Championship and was banned for nine months after a nine-hour deliberation by the New Zealand Rugby Union's judicial committee.[9] This was viewed by observers as a turning point in attitudes towards eye-gouging and punishments for eye-gouging became stricter.[8] According to John Daniell, a New Zealand lock who played for nearly a decade in France, eye gouging is fairly common and considered "a way of life" in French rugby, where it is known as "la fourchette".[10]

Sanctions for eye-gouging have been subject to debate by journalists and commentators, depending on interpretation by presiding disciplinary officers.[11] Punishments in the Northern Hemisphere are seen by some journalists as being harsher than those for similar offenses seen in Southern Hemisphere countries.[12] South African national coach, Peter de Villiers stated he did not believe that an eye-gouging incident for which Schalk Burger was yellow carded merited any punishment.[13]


Clarence Harding after a severe eye gouge

As well as many cases involving professional rugby union, the case of Clarence Harding, an amateur player, has received considerable coverage due to the extreme damage caused to his eye.[14][unreliable source][15][16] Harding was left without sight in his right eye and can no longer play rugby, and the injury has affected his livelihood and has since had the eye removed due to the pain.[17] Matt Iles, the player alleged to have injured Harding, was found not guilty by the RFU as they could not determine which player was responsible.[18] However, Maidstone RFC were fined £2,000 and deducted 50 points after being found "guilty of conduct prejudicial to the interests of the game".[19] The incident was also investigated by Kent Police but no criminal charges were brought against Maidstone or Iles due to insufficient evidence.[20]

On 2 October 2010, Gavin Quinnell suffered an eye injury during a game between Llanelli and Cross Keys, from which he lost the sight in his left eye.[21] The incident was under investigation by the Welsh Rugby Union and Gwent Police, with the police arresting the perpetrator. However, the Crown Prosecution Service advised against prosecution, leading to the dropping of criminal charges, and the WRU eventually dropped its citing complaint, to the self-described shock of the Quinnell family, one of the most prominent in Welsh rugby.[22]

An incident in the Rugby World Cup Final on 23 October 2011 led the IRB to reevaluate its disciplinary procedures. France centre Aurélien Rougerie apparently made contact with the eyes of New Zealand captain Richie McCaw, who would later state that he had been "half-blinded" for the last few minutes of the match.[23] The original camera angles provided by host broadcaster Sky NZ showed no apparent foul play, and Rougerie was not cited within the 36-hour window allowed by IRB rules at the time. Three days after the match, new Sky NZ footage emerged which showed Rougerie apparently raking his hand across McCaw's eyes. The IRB could not cite Rougerie outside the 36-hour window, and the exception allowed in its rules for "exceptional circumstances" did not include the emergence of new evidence. In December 2011 the IRB announced that it would reconsider its procedures to address similar situations in the future.[24]

High-profile cases[edit]

This is a list of cases where eye-gouging has been reported to have happened in top national league, European Cup or international level rugby union matches. It is shown in chronological order; international matches are highlighted. Players banned for contact with eyes or the eye area of an opponent as well as eye-gouging are included.

Offence date Offender Victim Length of ban
For Against
1992 New Zealand Loe, RichardRichard Loe[25] New Zealand Cooper, GregGreg Cooper[25] 26 Waikato Otago
1997 New Zealand Flavell, TroyTroy Flavell[25] New Zealand Sinkinson, SteveSteve Sinkinson[25] 3 North Harbour Wellington
1999-11-26 France Nones, RichardRichard Nones[26] Wales Cronk, SvenSven Cronk[26] 104 (2 years) Colomiers Pontypridd
2003-08-02 South Africa Botha, BakkiesBakkies Botha[27] Australia Cannon, BrendanBrendan Cannon[27] 8  South Africa  Australia
2003-10-26 Argentina Grau, RobertoRoberto Grau[28] Ireland Wood, KeithKeith Wood[28] 9  Argentina  Ireland
2003-10-26 Argentina Reggiardo, MauricioMauricio Reggiardo[28] Ireland Corrigan, ReggieReggie Corrigan[28] 6  Argentina  Ireland
2007-01-20 France Daniel Larrechea[29] Not available 6 Sale Sharks Ospreys
2007-04-20 England Hartley, DylanDylan Hartley[30] England Haskell, JamesJames Haskell and Ireland Johnny O'Connor[31] 26 Northampton Saints London Wasps
2008-02-23 Italy Bergamasco, MauroMauro Bergamasco[32] Wales Byrne, LeeLee Byrne[32] 13  Italy  Wales
2008-03-15 Fiji Rabeni, SeruSeru Rabeni[33] England Kyriacou, AndyAndy Kyriacou[33] 14 Leicester Tigers Saracens
2008-07-12 South Africa Du Plessis, BismarckBismarck du Plessis[34] New Zealand Thomson, AdamAdam Thomson[34] 3  South Africa  New Zealand
2008-09-20 Ireland Best, NeilNeil Best[35] England Haskell, JamesJames Haskell[35] 18 Northampton Saints London Wasps
2008-10-18 Romania Tincu, MariusMarius Tincu[36] Wales James, PaulPaul James[36] 18 Perpignan Ospreys
2009-01-24 England Corry, MartinMartin Corry[37] Wales Hibbard, RichardRichard Hibbard[37] 6 Leicester Tigers Ospreys
2009-04-18 France Azam, OlivierOlivier Azam[38] Wales Roberts, JamieJamie Roberts[38] 9 Gloucester Cardiff Blues
2009-05-02 Ireland Quinlan, AlanAlan Quinlan[39] Ireland Cullen, LeoLeo Cullen[30] 12 Munster Leinster
2009-06-26 Italy Parisse, SergioSergio Parisse[40] New Zealand Ross, IsaacIsaac Ross[40] 8  Italy  New Zealand
2009-06-27 South Africa Burger, SchalkSchalk Burger[41] Ireland Fitzgerald, LukeLuke Fitzgerald[30] 8  South Africa British and Irish Lions
2009-10-09 Ireland Jennings, ShaneShane Jennings[42] England Kennedy, NickNick Kennedy 12 Leinster London Irish
2009-12-12 France Dupuy, JulienJulien Dupuy[43] Ireland Ferris, StephenStephen Ferris[43] 24 Stade Français Ulster
2009-12-12 France Attoub, DavidDavid Attoub[44] Ireland Ferris, StephenStephen Ferris[44] 70 Stade Français Ulster
2010-08-28 Argentina Leguizamón, Juan ManuelJuan Manuel Leguizamón[45] France Bouilhou, JeanJean Bouilhou[45] 12 Stade Français Toulouse
2010-12-19 Wales Rees, RichieRichie Rees[46] England Hartley, DylanDylan Hartley[46] 12 Cardiff Blues Northampton Saints
2011-04-02 England Cueto, MarkMark Cueto[47] England Day, ChristianChristian Day[47] 9a Sale Sharks Northampton Saints
2011-10-02 Italy Ghiraldini, LeonardoLeonardo Ghiraldini[48] Ireland Healy, CianCian Healy[48] 15  Italy  Ireland
2014-01-25 New Zealand Dickson, SamSam Dickson[49] Fiji Not available[49] 8b  New Zealand Sevens  Fiji Sevens
2014-08-01 South Africa Williams, MandisaMandisa Williams[50] Australia Hewett, AlishaAlisha Hewett[50] 16  South Africa Women  Australia Women
2014-11-22 Canada Barkwill, RayRay Barkwill[51] Romania Not available[51] 9  Canada  Romania
2015-09-20 Argentina Galarza, MarianoMariano Galarza[52] New Zealand Retallick, BrodieBrodie Retallick[52] 9  Argentina  New Zealand
2016-01-09 Fiji Raisuqe, JosaiaJosaia Raisuqe[53] South Africa Stander, CJCJ Stander[53] 15 Stade Français Munster
2016-01-16 England Ashton, ChrisChris Ashton[54] Ireland Marshall, LukeLuke Marshall[54] 10 Saracens Ulster
2016-03-12 Wales Francis, TomasTomas Francis[55] England Cole, DanDan Cole[55] 8  Wales  England
2016-12-10 South Africa Earle, GeorgeGeorge Earle[56] England Ellis, TomTom Ellis[56] 8 Cardiff Blues Bath


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^ Note a: Prior to the announcement of the RFU's nine-week ban on 11 April 2011, Cueto had received a six-week ban from his club. The bans ultimately ran concurrently. ^ Note b: Dickson's ban was officially announced as nine matches; the NZRU chose not to appeal. This covered the final of the 2014 USA Sevens and the entirety of the 2014 Wellington Sevens; he will be available for the 2014 Japan Sevens.

External links[edit]