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Rugby Cards and Penalties

Rugby Cards and Penalties - Absolute Rugby

Becca McPartland |

Referees have had the authority to send players off the pitch since the early days of rugby. However, adding physical cards to the game is a more recent development, only taking off around the late 90s and early 00s. Despite yellow and red cards existing in football for much longer, rugby chose not to follow the same rules with cards, instead opting for a penalty box known as the sin bin. 

a hand holding up a yellow card with the blue sky in the background

Yellow cards and the sin bin

Cards were first introduced to rugby in 1995. Initially, rugby followed football’s use of cards, so a yellow-carded player would continue playing. This changed following the 1999 World Cup, after which a ten-minute suspension came into force. 

Mark Cooksley of the All Blacks was given the first yellow card in an international match after he punched an opposition player.. However, the referee later learned that the card didn’t  apply to international matches yet! Although, it wouldn’t be long before it came into force. The first “official” yellow card was given to Ben Clarke of England, playing in a Five Nations match against Ireland. 

What is the sin bin?

The “sin bin” concept is not unique to rugby union. Many sports, including ice hockey, rugby league and roller derby, use penalty boxes to punish players temporarily. 

When players receive a yellow card in rugby union, they are sent to the sin bin, which is normally a physical seat at the side of the pitch, for 10 minutes. A manager cannot replace the player during this time unless they are a prop or hooker. This is because they are in the front row of the scrum and have more specialist skills, so they can be replaced if sent to the sin bin. 

a referee holds up a substitution board, number 16 will be replaced with number 5

What infringements would result in a yellow card?

A yellow card tends to be issued when a player has repeated infringements. For example, being offside multiple times, high tackles, tackling a player without the ball on purpose or not rolling away at the ruck. 

Do two yellow cards in rugby equal a red?

In short, yes. Two yellow cards mean a red and an immediate sending-off, leaving the team a player down. When a player gets a yellow card and is sent to the sin bin, often they calm down and play more safely afterwards. If the coach thinks the carded player is too riled up, they’ll substitute them to avoid them ending up with a further yellow and being sent off. 

Are there red cards in rugby?

Red cards are given in rugby for the most serious infringements. These include high tackles, shoulder charges to the head or neck, recklessly charging into a ruck or maul, two yellow cards, and more. We did a deep dive into the laws and the top ten rugby red cards on our blog. 

A red card is an immediate sending-off, with no return to the game and no substitutions allowed. Red cards also lead to a suspension, ranging from two weeks to a lifetime ban, depending on the severity of the foul. 

Can a red card be overturned?

Players can appeal against a red card when they face the judiciary committee, or they can appeal to the player's board. If successful, the red card is overturned, and they avoid any subsequent fines or match bans. 

The brief stint of the white card

For a short period, around 2012, a white card was introduced into Super Rugby. The white card was used by referees when they were unsure if an incident warranted a red card or who the offending player was. The concept didn’t last, and the introduction of TMO systems meant the white card was pretty redundant anyway. 

A new red card format?

Earlier this year, a trial of a new “20-minute red card” took place in Super Rugby. This new rule meant that the manager could tactically replace the dismissed player after 20 minutes.. Ultimately, the trial proved inconclusive, and the subject remains contentious. Many officials argue that red cards are a big part of player safety and a deterrent against dangerous play. The jury is still out on this one. 

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