Auckland - Italy's Leonardo Ghiraldini has been suspended for 15 weeks for 'gouging' the eyes of Ireland prop Cian Healy during the teams' decisive Rugby World Cup pool match last weekend, the International Rugby Board (IRB) confirmed after a disciplinary hearing on Tuesday.
The 26-year-old hooker, who admitted the offence but denied his actions had been deliberate, was found guilty of breaching Law 10.4(m) by making contact with the eyes or the eye area and acts contrary to good sportsmanship.
In a fixture both sides had to win to advance to the quarter-finals, Pool C winners Ireland triumphed 36-6 at Dunedin's Otago Stadium and so knocked Italy out of the tournament.
The IRB said in a statement: "Having conducted a detailed review of all the evidence available, including all broadcast angles and additional evidence from the Player and submissions from his legal representative, the Judicial Officer found the contact with the eyes of the Irish player to be a deliberate act on the part of Ghiraldini and categorised it as top end offending which has an entry point of 24 weeks suspension.
"However, taking into account particular aspects of the offending in this case and a range of mitigating factors, principally Ghiraldini’s previously unblemished record, the Judicial Officer reduced the period of suspension otherwise arrived at to 15 weeks."
Ghiraldini, who has 48 hours to appeal, will be suspended until January 17 next year.
During the first half of Sunday's match an angry Healy indicated he had been the victim of eye gouging, but experienced South African referee Jonathan Kaplan said he could take no action as he had not himself seen the incident.
Eye gouging is one of the most serious offences in rugby union and is punishable by a maximum three-year ban.
Ireland face Wales in their World Cup quarter-final in Wellington on Saturday.
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