The curious disciplinary cases in Rugby Union

Published 16 March 2013 By: Kevin Carpenter

Kevin Carpenter blog piece on the International Rugby Board’s (‘IRB’) (the world governing body of rugby) Laws of the Game (Law 10) that led to three differing disciplinary action for Cian Healy (Ireland), Sergio Parisse (Itlay) and Nick De Luca (Scotland).


There is no denying that a world of difference exists between the underlying cultures in rugby and football, this being no more evident than in relation to player discipline. All of the stakeholders in rugby, especially the supporters, claim to have the moral high ground despite the inherently violent nature of the sport. Indeed there is much to admire about the attitude of rugby players and coaches in relation to discipline, particularly the respectful and indeed deferential attitude towards match officials. Oh how I long for the day when I am refereeing a game of football and get called “sir”!


However three incidents of player indiscipline in rugby union at the beginning of this year have led to decisions by disciplinary panels (why I say that in the plural will become important later) in the sport that to me appear not to reflect the gravity of the offences and their real life potential or actual consequences. All of which have had an impact on the Six Nations northern hemisphere international rugby tournament whose exciting finale on the 16th March 2013.

The first incident of Foul Play under the International Rugby Board’s (‘IRB’) (the world governing body of rugby) Laws of the Game (Law 10) came when Ireland played England in Dublin on Sunday 10 February. Ireland prop Cian Healy stamped on his opposite number Dan Cole’s leg when he was laid on the wrong side of a ruck. The incident can be viewed here. The referee did not see this but a complaint was made by the Citing Commissioner (an independent official appointed to a match who is responsible for citing players who commit foul play which is not detected by the match officials) after the game. Then Sergio Parisse, Italy’s captain and talisman, was sent off whilst playing for his club side in France, Stade Francais on Saturday 16 February, for insulting words Parisse allegedly used towards the referee. Finally, Scotland international Nick De Luca committed this illegal ‘tip tackle’ during his club team Edinburgh’s loss in the RaboDirect Pro12 league on Friday 22 February.

Any disciplinary action in relation to Foul Play under Law 10 is dealt with in accordance with Regulation 17 of the IRB ‘Regulations Relating to the Game’1. The sanctions metered out to the three offenders are as follows:

  • Cian Healy [Law 10.4(b)] – A Six Nations disciplinary committee gave him a 3 week ban, which included a 2 week reduction in recognition of his previous good record (Reg 17.19.5), which would ordinarily have ended on Sunday 3 March. However the committee said (in accordance with Reg 17.19.11(b)) because Healy would not have played for his club side in any event in the interim despite the ban, the ban would not actually expire until one week later Sunday 10 March. This was reduced upon an appeal on technical grounds (regarding Regs 17.1 (k) and (l)) by Healy back to the ban ending Sunday 3 March (a discussion of which is outside the scope of this blog). This meant he could play in the final two games of the tournament, therefore only actually being banned for one game. 
  • Sergio Parisse [Law 10.4(m)&(s)] – despite strongly denying the referees allegations, a domestic French league disciplinary committee landed him with a 30 day punishment (with 10 days suspended) which would have meant he would have missed the remainder of the Six Nations tournament. However he also appealed successfully having his ban cut to 20 days, the offence being downgraded from ‘insulting the referee’ to ‘failing in his captain’s duties, meaning he could also play in the final two games of the tournament.
  • Nick De Luca [Law 10.4(j)] – a RaboDirect Pro 12 disciplinary committee handed him a 13 week ban. This meant he would miss the remainder of the Six Nations and the rest of the rugby season, which also would essentially rule him out of consideration for the quadrennial prestigious British & Irish Lions tour.

The first thing to comment upon is the fact that three separate disciplinary committees are applying the same Regulations and yet all the decisions affect each players ability to play in the same tournament, the Six Nations, due to the “all matches are equal” rule. This does not happen in football because although FIFA’s Laws of the Game are universal, each governing body/national association has its own disciplinary sanctions and rules that apply to its sanctioned competitions. Further, the “all matches are equal” rule also differs from football in that if you get suspended due to actions in a club rugby match the ban also applies to matches at other levels of the sport as well, including international fixtures. The wide discretion given to each disciplinary body in applying the sanctions for each Foul Play offence in Appendix 1 does not in my view currently find the right balance when considered alongside the “all matches are equal” rule.  

However, my fundamental issue with the Regulations, and the application of them, is how can Healy’s intentional, deliberate stamp with the full force of his boot (these all being factors referred to under ‘Assessment of seriousness of the Foul Play’ at Reg 17.9.2) on a prone player’s leg, which could quite easily have broken it, lead to a shorter suspension than the alleged verbal abuse of a referee? Furthermore, are De Luca’s actions, in terms of the potential to cause very serious injury, much worse than Healy’s? Passionate rugby fans will tell you that De Luca’s actions are far worse because he could have broken the player’s neck but there was seemingly no intent involved, although it was clearly reckless. Regardless, I simply do not accept that it merited a sanction 10 weeks longer than Healy’s with the knock-on (no pun intended) consequences described above.  Rugby fans will also say that if you are on the wrong side of the ruck, which is also against the Laws, then you are allowed to ‘ruck’ them forcefully with your boot to get them out of the way. When I played I did this to people and it was done to me. However this is not the same as a deliberate stamp on a prone/defenceless player, who was fortunate enough to escape serious injury. This, in my opinion, is clearly outside the realms of the legitimate inherent violence players accept when taking to a rugby field.

So where does this leave the legitimacy of the game and sanctions for foul play? The vagaries of tournament scheduling should not allow a player who commits a serious offence, and receives a lengthy ban (although not sufficient in my opinion) to only miss one game. Therefore the sanctions guidelines need to be altered for bans to be applied in relation to a number of games and not a number of weeks. However, I would retain the “all matches are equal” rule as bans should not be tournament specific, the seriousness of an offence is the same regardless of the level of competition it is committed at. Finally, although football’s behaviour (particularly that of the players and coaches) towards match officials is still unacceptable despite various ‘Respect’ campaigns, culturally rugby and the IRB need to recognise a better balance in its disciplinary approach and guidelines between on the one hand treatment of match officials, and on the other the reckless or intentional acts of foul play towards other players on the field to whom each player owes (or should owe) a duty of care. The fact that the verbal abuse of match officials carries a more severe range of sanctions than both stamping and tip tackling is quite frankly a nonsense in my view.






1. Regulation 17.2 says the following:

“All Unions, Associations and their recognised Tournament Organisers have an obligation to put in place and implement disciplinary regulations within their jurisdictions and in respect of their tournaments and Matches which incorporate fully the Core Principles…The Core Principles shall apply to all Unions, Associations and Tournament Organisers within their respective jurisdictions (and at all levels). The remaining provisions of Regulation 17 are mandatory guiding principles that allow flexibility in the formulation of regulations by such bodies”.

There are 14 Core Principles listed under Reg 17.1 but I would like to highlight the following six:

  1. (a)The sanctions applicable to Foul Play shall be the same throughout the Game. Therefore all Unions and Associations shall adopt the IRB Sanctions for Offences within the Playing Enclosure (Appendix 1) and ensure that they are applied within their territory.
  2. (b)All Matches are equal. A Player suspended from playing the Game shall be suspended from participating in any Match at any level during the period of his suspension.
  3. (c)The core sanctioning process set out in Regulation 17.19 shall be applied to all disciplinary cases involving Foul Play at all levels of the Game.
  4. (i)The standard of proof for [Sending] Off and citing shall be as provided in Regulation 17.17.1 to 17.17.4. (balance of probabilities)
  5. (k)Players Ordered-Off or cited by a Citing Commissioner shall be provisionally suspended pending the hearing of the case.
  6. (l)Suspended Players who appeal shall remain under suspension in accordance with Regulation 17.24.


To complete the background regulatory picture we must mention Appendix 1 referred to at Reg 17.1(a). Appendix 1 provides guidelines that any disciplinary body in any competition sanctioned by the IRB must follow when sanctioning different types of Foul Play offences. Appendix 1 is positive in that it seeks to strike an appropriate balance between consistency and flexibility, and therefore should lessen the frequency of appeals, but the culture of the game means the ‘Entry Point’ sanctions and the discretion allowed is open to criticism. The three relevant offences for our purposes are as follows:

Law No.


Entry Point Based on Scale of Seriousness of the Player’s conduct, which constitutes the offending:

Lower End (LE),

Mid Range (MR),

Top End (TE)

Maximum Sanction


Stamping/Trampling on an Opponent

LE – 2 weeks

MR – 5 weeks

TE – 9+ weeks

52 weeks



Verbal Abuse of Match Officials

LE – 6 weeks

MR – 12 weeks

TE – 18+ weeks

52 weeks


Lifting a player from the ground and either dropping or driving that Player’s head and/or body into the ground whilst the Player’s feet are off the ground

LE – 4 weeks

MR – 8 weeks

TE – 12+ weeks

52 weeks

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Kevin Carpenter

Kevin Carpenter

Kevin is a advisor and member of the editorial board for LawInSport, having previously acted as editor. In his day-to-day work he has two roles: as the Principal for his own consultancy business Captivate Legal & Sports Solutions, and Special Counsel for Sports Integrity at leading global sports technology and data company Genius Sports.

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