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9 out of character on-field moments when rugby players lost control

By Ciarán Kennedy
South Africa's Schalk Burger and David Pocock of Australia.

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They say nobody is perfect, and that is certainly put to the test in the heat of battle on the rugby pitch. Whether it’s the seasoned veteran or the reliable team captain, the pressure of a big game can get to anybody.


Here, we take a look at nine times where players who wouldn’t usually be associated with foul play let their frustration get the better of them.

Schalk Burger’s eye gouge 

During the second Test of the 2009 Lions tour, South Africa flanker Schalk Burger somehow avoided a red card after an eye gouge on Luke Fitzgerald with only 30 seconds on the clock.

Burger escaped with a yellow card, and the Boks went on to win a heated encounter 28-25 at Loftus Versfeld, with Bakkies Botha subsequently banned for two weeks for a dangerous charge on Adam Jones.

Unsurprisingly, Burger was later handed an eight-week ban. He apologised to supporters and his team-mates at the time, but stopped short of apologising to Fitzgerald for an incident which was picked up clearly by the television cameras.

South Africa coach Peter de Villiers also came in for criticism after defending the player, claiming the incident was “part of sport” and shouldn’t have even warranted a yellow card. Not many people agreed with him.

Brian O’Driscoll’s stamp in Rome

O’Driscoll was not a player associated with dirty or reckless play, but he uncharacteristically lost his cool during Ireland’s Six Nations game against Italy in 2014.

The centre stamped on the chest of Italy’s Simone Favaro during the 22-15 defeat, but only received a yellow card from referee Wayne Barnes.

The Leinster star was cited after the game and was handed a three-week ban.

Hazell loses it
Perhaps the most shocking incident on this list, as it is more than a simple moment of frustration.

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In 2012 Challenge Cup game, Gloucester flanker Andy Hazell delivered a flurry of punches on Mont-de-Marsan’s Sebastien Ormaechea. Clearly enraged, Hazell also drove his knee into the prop as he lay defenceless on the ground.

Hazell said his actions came in retaliation to being eye-gouged, but the disciplinary panel refused to excuse his behaviour, and banned him for 14 weeks. He was probably lucky that it wasn’t more.

Jamie Heaslip’s red card against New Zealand

Leinster’s Jamie Heaslip became only the second Irish player to be red-carded in a Test match when he was sent to the line in the early stages of a 66-28 defeat to New Zealand in 2010.

Only ten minutes had been played in New Plymouth when Heaslip twice forced his knee into Richie McCaw at a ruck, with 14-man Ireland slumping to what was at the time a record defeat to the All Blacks.

Heaslip admitted it was a rush of blood to the head and apologised, but in the immediate aftermath of the incident he found himself at the centre of intense media scrutiny in New Zealand before being handed a five-week ban.

David Pocock’s MMA neck crank 

Another rush of blood to the head moment. During a 2016 Super Rugby game between the Brumbies and the Chiefs, David Pocock appeared to grab Michael Leitch in an MMA-style choke.

Leitch could be seen hitting Pocock in an effort to get released, but Pocock kept the Japan captain locked in his grip.

While Pocock avoided a red card, he was cited and handed a three-week ban which was reduced to just two games on account of the player’s early guilty plea and otherwise spotless disciplinary record.

Pocock himself seemed genuinely remorseful for his actions, calling Leitch to personally apologise and releasing a statement in which he admitted he was “incredibly disappointed” in himself.


Tempers flare between South Africa and Argentina

An ill-tempered game which saw accusations of eye-gouging and biting levelled at Argentina.

The Boks won this 2013 Rugby Championship game 22-17, but their players were incensed after a number of controversial incidents went unpunished.


Flanker Francois Louw told referee Steve Walsh that his eye had been gouged by Argentina’s Pablo Matera, while Eben Etzebeth claimed to have been bitten by Leonardo Senatore in a ruck.

Both players were citied. Senatore was banned for seven matches, but Matera was found not guilty.

Rees red-carded for stamp on Easter

Matthew Rees was sent-off and banned for seven weeks for this nasty stamp on Harlequins’ Nick Easter during Cardiff Blues Challenge Cup defeat in 2015.

The former British and Irish Lion admitted he deserved to be sent-off for a wreckless stamp which could have inflicted serious damage.

Lewis Moody fights a team-mate

The standout moment from England’s 40-3 thrashing of Samoa in 2005.

After Alesana Tuilagi took England’s Mark Cueto out in mid-air late in the second half, a mini-brawl ensued.

Cueto was quick to pick himself up after crashing to the ground head first, and went straight for Tuilagi, but it was the actions of Lewis Moody which caused most shock.

An enraged Moody took exception with Tuilagi’s dangerous tackle, and repeatedly punched his Leicester team-mate. He was far from the only guilty culprit in the brawl, but became the first England player to be sent-off at Twickenham, with Tuilagi also sent to the line.

Moody was later banned for nine weeks while Tuilagi was banned for two.

Lovotti’s tip-tackle 

One of the clearest red cards in recent memory. Andrea Lovotti was sent off for a tip-tackle on South Africa’s Duane Vermeulen during their Pool B clash at last year’s World Cup.

The incident was widely compared to the infamous Tama Umaga and Keven Mealamu’s tip-tackle on Brian O’Driscoll during the 2005 Lions tour. Referee Wayne Barnes was quick to show Lovotti red, and his team-mate Nicola Quaglio was perhaps lucky to avoid the same sanction.

The red card arrived early in the second half with Italy 17-3 down. They went on to lose 49-3.

It was, in the words of Italy head coach Conor O’Shea, “crass stupidity.”

BONUS: John Hayes sees red

John Hayes was known as something of a gentle giant, and enjoyed a largely clean disciplinary record during his time in the red of Munster and green of Ireland. There was one significant blot on the copy book however.

In 2009, Munster were on the end of a hammering at the hands of bitter rivals Leinster, and when Leinster loosehead Cian Healy got caught under a maul, Hayes used the opportunity to deliver a nasty head stamp to the then young lion of Irish rugby. He was banned for six weeks.


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9 out of character on-field moments when rugby players lost control