Dangerous play in rugby union

Dangerous play in rugby union

Dangerous play in rugby union is dealt with under the foul play law (Law 10) in the official International Rugby Board (IRB) rugby union law book. It defines foul play as "anything a player does within the playing enclosure that is against the letter and spirit of the Laws of the Game".[1] Under these laws dangerous play includes; punching or striking, stamping or trampling, and kicking.[2]



If a referee observes dangerous play they are obliged to penalise and admonish the perpetrator. This can result in a "temporary suspension" (yellow card) of 10 minutes or even a "sending off" (red card).[3] If the offense is serious enough further action can be taken after the game, including bans from playing rugby and criminal charges. In some high-profile matches a citing commissioner is appointed, who can cite any player for dangerous play, whether they have been detected by the referee or not.[4] In matches where there is no appointed citing commissioner the Unions involved can cite players for dangerous play.[4] During the judicial process the severity of the incident is considered. This is assessed by judging if the offending was intentional, reckless, provoked or premeditated as well as what body part was used (fist, knee, boot etc.), how vulnerable the victim was, the effect of the actions had on the victim and disciplinary record of the offender.[4] When handing out match suspensions for dangerous play the IRB recommends suspension periods based on the type and severity of the offence. For most incidences of dangerous play (punching, stamping, dangerous tackles etc.) they recommend suspensions starting from two weeks, up to a maximum of one year.[4] The more serious offences include striking with the head (up to two years), making contact with the eyes (up to three years), testicle grabbing (up to four years) and biting (up to four years).[4]


The law that deals with dangerous play also applies to misconduct[2]. Misconduct is any conduct (excluding foul play during a match) that is unsporting, unruly, ill-disciplined or that brings the sport of rugby union into disrepute.[4] Misconduct deals with violence or intimidation that occurs within the venue (i.e. changing rooms, tunnel, warmup area), abuse of match officials or spectators, discriminatory statements, bribery, betting on involved games or lying about past disciplinary records.[4] The penalty handed down for misconduct cases could be a caution, fine, suspension (for a number of matches or time period), exclusion from Rugby Unions or grounds, suspension from Rugby officiating or a combination of the above.[4] Verbal abuse of match officials can be punished by up to a year suspension, while threatening could result in five years and physical abuse of an official could see the offender banned for life.[4] Racial or other discriminatory abuse could see a player banned for up to a year.[4]


Early Rugby games were played under a code of conduct that varied between each school or club.[5] As the popularity and number of clubs increased a set of standardised rules were developed. On the 24 November 1863 a set of rules were developed by the Football Association (FA) that included the first law involving dangerous play. Law 10 stated that: "If any player with the ball should run towards his advisories' goal, any player in the opposition side should be at liberty to charge, hold, trip, or hack him, or wrest the ball from him; but no player shall be held or hacked at the same time".[6] Hacking (tripping an opponent and kicking his shins) and carrying the ball were the most contested rules and they were soon scrapped by the FA. This caused some clubs to leave the Association and soon more games were played that involved hacking and carrying the ball than those that followed the FA's "official" laws.[7] Concerns over hacking came to a head in 1870 when a surgeon published a letter in the times complaining about the number of rugby injuries he had dealt with that involved hacking, and chastised the schools for letting it continue.[8]

Punching and Fighting

During the 1974 Lions tour to South Africa captain Willie McBride devised a plan where on a set call every player would attack a South African player, reasoning that this would prevent the referee form penalising any one individual, as he could not send the whole team off.[9] After French fullback Serge Blanco was bumped after taking a mark by Englishman Nigel Heslop during the 1991 Rugby World Cup quarter-final, flanker Éric Champ knocked Heslop out with a punch.[9] In 1990 English lock Paul Ackford was unexpectedly hit by a haymaker from Argintine prop Federico Mendez after being mistaken for another player who made contact with Mendezes head.[9] During the British and Irish Lions 2001 tour match against Australian state side the New South Wales Waratahs, fullback Duncan McRae punched Lions Fly half Ronan O'Gara multiple times as he lay prone on the ground.[9] He received a red card and subsequent seven week ban for the offense, although as it occurred during the Australian off-season he didn't miss any games. In 2009 at a rugby derby involving two of Romania's top teams a mass brawl broke out involving most of the players and reportedly a few spectators.[10] Two players received a red card at the time and nine players were late suspended by the Romanian Rugby Federation.

Stamping and kicking

In a 1927 match involving Quillan, the strongest team in the country at the time, and Perpignan, the Quillan hooker Gaston Riviere received such a kicking that he died from his injuries.[11]Welsh fullback JPR Williams was the victim of stamping by touring New Zealand prop John Ashworth in 1978.[9] After receiving 30 stitches from his father he returned to the game. A player for Welsh club Pontycymmer was jailed for 15 months after stomping on an opposition players head during a rugby game in 2005.[12] In 2006 a South African rugby player from the Western Cape died after allegedly being kicked in the head during a rugby match.[13]


South African prop Johan Le Roux bit New Zealand hooker Sean Fitzpatrick's ear during a scrum during a test in 1994, receiving an 18 month ban.[9] After the disciplinary hearing he stated that "For an 18-month suspension, I feel I probably should have torn it off". Kevin Yates, an English international, was cited for foul play in 1998 by London Scottish after a player suffered a serious injury to his left ear[14] and subsequently received a six month ban.[15] In 2008 an English club player was banned for eighty weeks following a biting incident that left a player with "a partial amputation of the right index finger".[16] A Welsh club rugby player was jailed for a year in 2008 for biting an opponents earlobe off.[17] After a scuffle during a 2009 rugby match in the Cape Town suburb of Brackenfell, a player had to have his fingertip reattached after an alleged biting incident.[18]

Dangerous Tackles

New Zealand players Tana Umaga and Kevin Mealamu were involved in an alleged spear tackle on Lions captain Brian O'Driscoll at the start of the first test during the 2005 tour.[9] The tackle dislocated O'Driscolls shoulder, putting him out of the rest of the tour. Although cited no suspensions were handed to either Umage or Mealamu.[19]


Eye-gouging is a serious offence 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.[20] The IRB has made special mention of eye gouging, describing it as "particularly heinous".[21] Following two 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".[21]

On 2 October 2010, Gavin Quinnell of the Welsh regional team Scarlets suffered an eye injury 30 minutes into a game between Scarlets feeder club Llanelli and Cross Keys. The following Thursday it was confirmed that, despite the best efforts of surgeons, he had lost the sight in his left eye.[22] The incident is currently being investigated by the Welsh Rugby Union and Gwent Police. Clarence Harding, an amateur player, lost sight in his right eye after an incident.[23][24][25] On 24 November 2010 the player alleged to have been responsible was cleared of all charges due to lack of evidence.[26]


  1. ^ "Laws of the Game Rugby Union 2010, Law 10 Definitions". International Rugby Board. http://www.irblaws.com/EN/laws/3/10/91/during-the-match/foul-play/definitions/#clause_91. Retrieved 2010-04-29. 
  2. ^ a b "Laws of the Game Rugby Union 2010, Law 10.4 Dangerous Play and Misconduct". International Rugby Board. http://www.irblaws.com/EN/laws/3/10/95/method-of-playing-the-match/foul-play/dangerous-play-and-misconduct/#clause_95. Retrieved 2010-04-29. 
  3. ^ "Laws of the Game Rugby Union 2010, Law 10.5 Sanctions". International Rugby Board. http://www.irblaws.com/EN/laws/3/10/96/during-the-match/foul-play/sanctions/#clause_96. Retrieved 2010-04-29. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j "REGULATION 17. ILLEGAL AND/OR FOUL PLAY AND MISCONDUCT". International Rugby Board. http://www.irb.com/mm/document/lawsregs/0/regulation17090730_8711.pdf. Retrieved 2010-04-29. 
  5. ^ Collins 2009, p. 13.
  6. ^ Collins 2009, p. 14.
  7. ^ Collins 2009, p. 15.
  8. ^ Collins 2009, p. 19.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g Huw Baines (March 11, 2009). "Blood, punch-ups and biting". ESPN Scrum. http://www.espnscrum.com/scrum/rugby/story/93244.html. 
  10. ^ "Mass Romanian rugby brawl caught a big hit on film". Herald Sun (Australia). April 14, 2009. http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/mass-rugby-brawl-caught-on-film/story-e6frf7jo-1225697244711. 
  11. ^ Smith, Sean (30 September 1999). "Rugby Union: How the imperial settlers carried an oval ball from the Pampas to Pacific". The Independent (London). http://www.independent.co.uk/sport/rugby-union-how-the-imperial-settlers-carried-an-oval-ball-from-the-pampas-to-pacific-1123272.html. 
  12. ^ "Rugby player jailed for stamping". BBC News. Monday, 12 November 2007. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/wales/south_west/7090654.stm. 
  13. ^ By Ben Maclennan (June 27 2006). "History of violence emerges after rugby death". Iol Sport. http://www.iol.co.za/sport/history-of-violence-emerges-after-rugby-death-1.283327. 
  14. ^ Chris Hewett (Saturday, 17 January 1998). "Rugby Union: Yates' legal team pushes for delay in ear-biting hearin". The Independent (United Kingdom). http://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/rugby-union-yates-legal-team-pushes-for-delay-in-earbiting-hearing-1139214.html. 
  15. ^ "Kevin Yates: Profile". ESPN Scrum. http://www.espnscrum.com/premiership/rugby/player/12512.html. 
  16. ^ "Rugby player banned after biting finger". The Sentinal (Staffordshire). Tuesday, November 25, 2008. http://www.thisisstaffordshire.co.uk/news/Rugby-player-banned-biting-finger/article-498720-detail/article.html. 
  17. ^ "Ear-biting rugby player is jail". BBC News. 25 September 2008. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/wales/7635752.stm. 
  18. ^ Devin Hermanus (April 29 2009). "Rugby player accused of biting off finger". The Mercury (South Africa). http://www.iol.co.za/news/south-africa/rugby-player-accused-of-biting-off-finger-1.441701. 
  19. ^ Mark Souster (September 26, 2007). "Tana Umaga reveals that angry Brian O’Driscoll never forgave him for spear tackle". The Times (United Kingdom). http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/sport/rugby_union/article2533179.ece. 
  20. ^ Souster, Mark (2010-01-11). "Eye gouging: war is declared on rugby's ‘ultimate sin’". The Times (London). http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/sport/rugby_union/article6982910.ece. 
  21. ^ a b Baldock, Andrew (2 July 2009). "IRB review signals intent to get tough on gouging". The Scotsman. http://sport.scotsman.com/rugby/IRB-review-signals-intent-to.5421507.jp. 
  22. ^ "Gavin Quinnell loses sight in his left eye". BBC.co.uk. 7 October 2010. http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/rugby_union/welsh/9056033.stm. Retrieved 11 October 2010. 
  23. ^ "Police investigate rugby match gouging incident which left player blind in one eye". Daily Mail (London). 31 January 2010. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1247241/Rugby-player-blinded-eye-eye-gouging-attack.html. Retrieved 2010-05-11. 
  24. ^ "Blind eyes must not be turned". http://www.planetrugby.com/story/0,25883,16016_6136583,00.html. Retrieved 2010-05-06. 
  25. ^ Eykyn, Alastair (2010-05-06). "Player blinded in one eye after gouge speaks out". BBC News. http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport2/hi/rugby_union/8663226.stm. Retrieved 2010-05-11. 
  26. ^ "Disappointment as Kent rugby player cleared of gouging". BBC.co.uk. 24 November 2010. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-kent-11827032. Retrieved 24 November 2010. 
  • Collins, Tony (2006). A social history of English Rugby Union. Routledge. 

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