Why Don’t Rugby Players Wear Eye Black? (Explained)

When you watch a rugby match, you’ll notice that players don’t wear eye black. This is in contrast to sports like American football and baseball.

Could a rugby player gain an advantage on the field by wearing the eye grease or stickers that NFL players use? Or would they be told by the referee that they’re not allowed to use eye black?

Let’s take a close look.

No Rugby Law Against Eye Black

The international authority that governs the sport of Rugby Union is known as World Rugby. They have a long list of numbered laws.

I’ve seen other websites mention that eye black isn’t allowed in Rugby. But there is no mention of it in the current laws.

There are two forms of eye black: grease applied with a stick or black adhesive stickers. If wearing these were outlawed, they would be covered by section 4 of the laws.

What aren’t rugby players allowed to wear?

The laws prohibit these items (there are a few more, these are a sample):

  • gloves
  • jewelry
  • shorts with padding
  • items with sharp material like buckles, zips, or rings
  • anything that the referee thinks might cause an injury

Notice that there is no mention of grease or adhesive stickers.

That’s not surprising, because plenty of rugby players use forms of grease and adhesive stickers for other reasons.

Rugby Players Use Grease And Adhesive Stickers Elsewhere

There are two types of eye black commonly used in American football. One is a form of grease applied with a grease stick. The other is an adhesive sticker.

Grease in rugby

headshot of player's ear with a small section of tape on the top of ear
vaseline and tape

Plenty of front row forwards in rugby put vaseline on their ears. This is to protect from chafing in the scrum, which can lead to the famous cauliflower ears.

There’s not much difference between vaseline and grease. Referees have no problem with globs of vaseline behind players’ ears.

Adhesive stickers in rugby

Rugby players don’t just use short adhesive stickers like the NFL players put under their eyes.

They use rolls and rolls of adhesive tape to apply legal padding to their ears, thighs, and wrists.

You can read more in our articles on:

Would Rugby Players Be Stopped From Using Eyeblack?

Referees have a lot of discretion in rugby. If they think that any unusual item could cause an injury, then they’ll instruct a player to remove it.

They can also take action if they believe that an item is against the spirit of fair play.

For example, referees have been known to stop young players from lathering their knees with vaseline to make it difficult for tacklers!

So, what about grease on the face? Well, it’s an offense to grab players by the head so that can’t be used to prevent it.

And I’ve never seen a player being told to get off the field for having stuff smeared on their face. Muddy faces are a common occurrence during rugby season!

So, if greasy material on the face isn’t a problem, what would referees do if they saw black stickers under the eyes?

I’m not sure. There’s no reason to think it would cause injury to another player.

How Do Rugby Players Protect Their Eyes Against Glare?

Eye black is supposed to help reduce glare in the eyes of American football and baseball players.

Rugby is also an outdoor sport. So, what do players do to avoid glare in their eyes?

I’ve often watched a fullback or winger squinting up into the sky trying to position themselves to catch a high ball. They may use a hand to block the sun when the ball is at its height.

But of course, they have to get their arms into the correct position as the ball drops down.

The answer is that rugby players don’t use any extra material to protect their eyes against the glare.

That doesn’t mean that protection wouldn’t be helpful. Kicking a high ball to the opposition on a sunny day is an age-old tactic.

The hope is that the opposing player drops the ball. This isn’t uncommon!

Why Don’t Rugby Players Wear Eye Black?

Why don’t coaches tell their wingers and fullbacks to copy the example of their NFL counterparts?

The reason is that there is no proof that eye black is effective in preventing glare.

There have been plenty of studies that have examined its use and impact. None have shown conclusively that there is a significant advantage to players’ vision.

Eye black is a tradition in American football, baseball, and some other American sports. It’s simply not a tradition in rugby.

Eye Black? No! Eyeliner? Yes!

I’ve never seen a rugby player wearing eye black. But I have seen one player wearing eyeliner.

The legendary Ma’a Nonu won a World Cup with the All Blacks in 2011 and 2015.

But back in 2004, the youngster was starting out in his career. He shocked the rugby world by taking to the field with plucked eyebrows and black eyeliner.

But there were very few opponents who would have a go at the newcomer for his unusual attire. They were too busy avoiding being flattened by the burly center.

Years later, Nonu was still laughing at the thought of being affected by the reaction to his eyewear. He had this to say in an interview with fellow legend Mils Muliaina:

“I didn’t care what people thought, because I had to be me.”

Ma’a Nonu interview

More Comparisons With American Football

You’ve noticed the difference in appearance, but what about other aspects of rugby? Check out these articles: