High profile cases in which loopholes have been exploited in rugby’s disciplinary system

Colin Newboult

Most people in professional sport will do anything they can to make sure it gives their side the best chance of winning.

Gamesmanship is simply a part of any sport, but disciplinary panels should be pretty arbitrary. However, even that is not beyond reproach and there has been some odd cases over the years.

Following the five-week suspension handed out to Glasgow’s Tom Jordan which only took him out of one Warriors game – the Challenge Cup final – we look at incidents that have seen rather ridiculous loopholes exploited.

Andrew Hore (2012)

In New Zealand’s penultimate game of 2012, they took on Wales and in the first minute the hooker blindsided Bradley Davies and took him out with a swinging arm. It was a cowardly act and one which drew the ire of everyone watching. However, it was missed by the officials and came before television match officials were allowed to intervene and rule on foul play.

Hore was later cited and sanctioned, with the front-rower handed an incredibly lenient five-week suspension. That did not go down well with those in the rugby world, but even worse was to follow as he only missed one Test match – their 38-21 defeat to England a week later. In fact, he didn’t miss much of the following Super Rugby campaign either with three of the Highlanders’ pre-season matches deemed to be part of the ban.

Michael Hooper (2015)

In July 2015, the outstanding Wallabies flanker was found guilty of punching or striking Argentina’s Nicolas Sanchez during their Rugby Championship Test in Mendoza. He was duly banned for one week, which was a huge blow given that they faced the mighty New Zealand in their next match.

Well, the Rugby Australia lawyers had other ideas. They successfully argued that he was due to play in a club game for Manly in their Shute Shield quarter-final against Randwick during the fallow week. In fact, Hooper was named among the replacements to show that they intended for him to be involved. It was, to be fair, brilliantly played by everyone in Australian rugby, but was rather comical in terms how blatantly they exploited the system.

Owen Farrell (2023)

The most recent example we could think of, with the England fly-half somehow being allowed to play in their Six Nations opener against Scotland earlier this year. In early January, Saracens faced Gloucester and the pivot hit the hosts’ back-row Jack Clement with a high shot. Although it was picked up by the officials, he was surprisingly only handed a yellow card at the time. Cue much uproar. That was upgraded to a red once Farrell had been cited, and he was suspended for the next four weeks – reduced to three upon him taking part in a World Rugby tackle course.

Between his ban and the Six Nations, there were three Sarries fixtures: Lyon, Edinburgh and Bristol Bears. However, there was a debate over whether the Bristol clash should count given it fell just a week prior to the Red Rose’s Calcutta Cup encounter. Now, given that England were in camp at that point and that first XV players are rarely released to play for their clubs, you would think not, but it was of course decided that the match with Bristol should be included. Wonder why.

Yoann Huget (2015)

Not a clear loophole as such but a seeming dereliction of duty by the French authorities. Getting towards the end of the Top 14 season, Toulouse faced Bordeaux-Begles in late May when Huget stamped on the head of Bordeaux’s Jandre Marais. It looked nasty and intentional but at the very least was reckless and deserved a ban. Although it was supposedly not seen by the officials at the time, most expected a citing to come his way, especially since the clip went viral on social media.

A blind eye was turned, however, and the wing was allowed to keep playing and, most crucially, help France in their build-up to the 2015 World Cup. The back was a key part of their squad and was a certainty in their first XV for the big games, starting in their opener against Italy. That was where some might say karma struck as Huget suffered an ACL injury during that game, thus ruling him out of the rest of the tournament and longer than he would have been if a suspension had been handed down.

Richard Nones (1999)

Staying with the French theme and the Colomiers prop was handed one of the most severe bans in the history of the game when he was found guilty of gouging Pontypridd’s Sven Cronk during a Heineken Cup match. There was no midweek hearing back then, with a panel immediately convening after the clash to hand Nones a two-year suspension.

The officials were convinced that they had seen the front-rower gouge Cronk, but the French outfit were not happy, with players showing their support for the prop in their next game with Munster. Colomiers were then involved in a long legal battle as they fought Nones’ corner and, according to the Guardian, continued to play him in their domestic league while that was going on. The following summer, the ban was changed to only include European competition.

Joe Marler (2020)

Just prior to the enforced break due to the Covid-19 pandemic, England played Wales in a Six Nations clash. It was a very entertaining encounter but one which was remembered for a single moment and that was Marler’s fondling of Alun Wyn Jones’ testicles. It was not seen by the officials or TMO, but the incident immediately went viral on social media.

The Harlequins prop was generally condemned online and the citing commissioner didn’t take too kindly to it either. He was subsequently banned for 10 weeks and appeared set to miss a large number of games. However, Covid happened, sport shut down and the suspension just seemed to disappear into thin air as it was eventually deemed that he did not need to serve it. Bizarre.

Dave Attwood (2010)

Back in 2010, Attwood was a young lock making his mark in English and European rugby. A physical and abrasive player, his form earned him a call-up to the national squad for the mid-year tour to Australia. He didn’t play in the Tests but featured in a 28-28 draw with the Australian Barbarians, where the second-row was cited for two alleged stamping offences.

The hearing never got very far, though, as his case was thrown out on a technicality after it emerged that the Australian governing body had never agreed with the RFU on the use of an Australian judicial team for the game. Under the laws of the old International Rugby Board, it required Test match and international tour games to have independent judicial and citing officers, but Scott Nowland, the citing commissioner, was from the host country. It was subsequently thrown out after England successfully argued their case.

Marius Tincu (2008)

Similar to the Nones situation, Perpignan were unhappy after Romanian hooker Marius Tincu was suspended for 18 weeks after being found guilty of gouging Ospreys and Wales prop Paul James during a Heineken Cup match. The Catalan club immediately appealed but that was thrown out on a technicality, leading them to go down the legal route.

They went to the body which represents the clubs, the Ligue Nationale de Rugby (LNR) and then the Comité National Olympique et Sportif Français (CNOSF) after that had failed. Perpignan argued that Tincu should be allowed to play in the Top 14 as the offence was committed in a European encounter. The French club duly won their case and the hooker resumed playing, which sent the IRB into a panic as they set up a sub-committee to look into the matter.

Sef Fa’agase and Tolu Latu (2016)

These two front-rowers were in the dock back in 2016 for relatively ‘minor’ offences, which led to them both receiving one-week bans. The Reds’ Fa’agase was suspended for kneeing the Waratahs’ Hugh Roach in the head, while ‘Tahs hooker Latu was punished for striking the Brumbies’ Matt Toomua a few weeks earlier.

Although their punishment was already pretty lenient, it was to get even better for the duo as they missed no games due to the bans falling on a bye week. A loophole in the Super Rugby disciplinary system meant that bye weeks were counted in the suspensions, which meant Fa’agase and Latu got off lightly. Fortunately, that would never happen again as the loophole was closed ahead of the next campaign.

Thomas Ramos (2022)

Another recent case of a disciplinary outcome that left you scratching your head. In December 2022, during Toulouse’s clash with Sale Sharks, the France full-back was involved in two separate incidents. The first, where he allegedly made contact with the eye area of Gus Warr, was missed by the officials but the second, where he headbutted Byron McGuigan, saw him red carded.

Ramos was sanctioned for both following the contest, receiving five and four-week bans respectively, but the disciplinary panel let him serve them concurrently rather than consecutively. As a result, it rather conveniently meant that he was free to resume playing on January 23, just prior to the Six Nations starting.

READ MORE: 15 of the biggest moments of sh*thousery in rugby union