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24 November 2010, 14:10 | Updated: 24 November 2010, 14:12
A rugby player has been cleared of gouging an opponent which left him blind in one eye during a match, the Rugby Football Union (RFU) said today.
Clarence Harding was rushed to hospital during a Kent County Cup match between his side Gravesend and Maidstone.
The Gravesend club wrote to its mid-Kent rivals demanding an investigation after surgeons said Mr Harding is unlikely to regain the sight in his right eye.
Matt Iles, of Maidstone RFC, was found not guilty last night of ``making contact with the eye or eye area'' of number 8 Mr Harding during the match at Mote Park on January 17.
But an RFU disciplinary panel ruled that the injury was ``caused deliberately by a Maidstone player'' and the club could face sanctions.
In a statement today, RFU disciplinary officer Judge Jeff Blackett said: ``The injury to Clarence Harding was caused by a finger or fingers inserted into the eye, causing a laceration.
``The injury was caused by a deliberate act of a Maidstone player.
``Clarence Harding immediately alleged an eye gouge which he would not have done had it been an accident by one of his own players.
``A serious act of foul play has been committed by a Maidstone player.''
Judge Blackett said officials were unable to determine who was responsible and will place their findings before the RFU company secretary and legal officer.
He said Maidstone RFC may face action ``under RFU rule 5.12 (conduct prejudicial to the interests of the Union/and or the Game) for the misconduct of its players''.
Gravesend officials said at the time of the incident that no one had suffered such a serious injury in the club's history.
Kent Police said it investigated the incident thoroughly, including taking almost 50 statements and examining 300 photographs, but no further action has been taken due to insufficient evidence.
Detective Sergeant Nick Sparkes said: ``Our sympathies are with Mr Harding who has had to come to terms with a life-changing injury as a result of this match and we have tried to keep him updated throughout the investigation.
``Our aim throughout the investigation has been to determine whether a criminal offence was committed or whether Mr Harding's injury was the result of an unfortunate accident in what is recognised as a high risk contact sport.
``Since Mr Harding reported the incident to us on the 28th of January we've carried out a very thorough investigation to try to establish exactly what happened at the match 11 days earlier.
``We have taken almost 50 statements from people who were at Mote Park that day, including players, spectators and rugby officials. One of the interviews was conducted under caution.
``We've scrutinised 300 photographs taken of the match and have spoken to medical experts.
``These medical experts include Mr Harding's surgeon, who says that although the injury could have been caused by a finger it could just as easily have been caused by the stud of one of the players' boots.
``Not one of the people we've interviewed can give direct evidence about what caused the injury and who might have been responsible.
``We have to prove a case beyond all reasonable doubt and at this moment in time we don't have the evidence to prove that a criminal offence has been committed.''
He appealed for anyone with fresh evidence to contact Kent Police on 01622 604283 or Crimestoppers on 0800 555111.