As rugby has evolved over the years, the rules have also had to evolve. There’s no denying that rugby is dangerous; its fast pace, high contact, and aggressive nature mean players are pretty hardened to some tough hits.
However, winning the ball is never worth putting opposing players in real danger, so careful rules must be followed to keep the game fair and, most importantly, safe. Hence, the most common reason for a red card to be issued is due to dangerous tackling, followed by dangerous play in a ruck/maul, then tip tackles.
Strict tackling rules have become even more important since concussion has been taken more seriously in the sport, with the RFU producing the “Don’t be a HEADCASE” campaign to help people recognise the signs and symptoms of concussion.
That said, the red card can remain confusing, with so much being left to the referees' discretion. We’re going to explore the red card, what warrants one and look at 10 of the most infamous red cards given in the game.
What is a red card in rugby?
The first-ever red card wasn’t a card at all. The controversial sending-off occurred on 3rd January 1925, in a game between England and New Zealand at Twickenham.
New Zealand forward Cyril Brownlie was sent off the pitch a mere 7 minutes into the game by referee Albert Freethy for deliberately kicking an England player lying on the ground at the time. The move sparked much controversy as this was the first time a player had been sent off in an international match.
The addition of physical red cards is quite a recent one, introduced only in the early 2000s. The red card is the highest punishment a referee can hand out. It calls for the player to leave the field immediately, and they cannot return or be replaced by a substitute. The team must remain a player down for the duration of the game.
There are many reasons why a referee might decide to give a red card. Some of the most common include:
- High tackle
- Shoulder charge (a tackle using no arms) directly to the head or neck of the ball carrier
- Physical abuse (including punching, gouging, biting, hitting a player, stamping or kicking)
- Verbal abuse directed at the referee
- Tackling an opponent who doesn’t have the ball
- Recklessly charging into a ruck or maul
- Two yellow cards
Red cards drastically affect the game, with the carded player's team being left at an automatic disadvantage, especially if it happens early into the game.
How many games do you miss for a red card in rugby?
When a player is sent off after a red card, there is no set number of games that they have to miss. Instead, a disciplinary committee will meet to decide the level of punishment based on the RFU’s sanction guidance.
Sanctions range from 2 weeks for a low-level offence, which includes a stiff arm tackle, tripping, early and late tackles and more, to 260 weeks or even a lifetime ban for the worst, high-level offences. The severest offences in rugby include reckless contact with eyes, biting, or verbal or physical abuse of a match official.
Who has the most red cards in rugby?
There are three players who have each received two red cards: Mario Cagnani of Uruguay, Alesana Tuilagi of Samoa, and Paul Emerick from the USA.
One of the most infamously unpredictable players, though, is former England captain Dylan Hartley. Hartley spent a total of 60 weeks of his career banned for multiple different offences.
In 2007, Hartley served a 26-week ban for gouging not one but two players: Wasps’ James Haskell and Johnny O’Connor. In 2012, he was given an 8-week ban for biting Ireland flanker Stephen Ferris during a Six Nations match, then a further 2-week ban later in the year for striking Rory Best of Ulster. 2013 saw Hartley receive an 11-week ban for abusing a referee; this resulted in him missing the Lion’s tour of Australia.
There’s still more: Hartley received a 3-week ban in 2014 for using his elbows dangerously. In 2015, he spent 4 weeks banned for headbutting Saracens’ Jamie George, causing him to miss out on the World Cup. Finally, in 2016, Hartley was banned for 6 weeks for swinging an arm at Sean O’Brien.
10 infamous rugby red cards
Dan Evans’ record breaker
In 2019, Osprey’s Dan Evans was shown a red card after just 37 seconds when his boot hit an opposition player in the face as he caught a high ball. Its believed that this red card is the fastest in the history of professional rugby.
Dylan Hartley’s foul mouth
It’s no surprise to see Hartley’s name show up on this list. The former England captain received a red card after allegedly calling the referee a “f****** cheat!” in the 2013 premiership final.
Janess Labushagne takes out Jonny Wilkinson
Springboks’ Labushagne was shown the red card in their 2002 match against England after he tackled Jonny Wilkinson despite him not having the ball. This can put the unsuspecting player in danger as they are not set and ready to take a tackle.
Angus Ta’avao’s controversial red against Ireland
Fans booed referee Jaco Peyper following Ta'avao's red card after a collision with Ireland's Garry Ringrose. After much deliberation and input from the TMO, the unintentional but clumsy clash of heads led to a red card. Spectators clearly felt the red was unwarranted, and the move received a lot of backlash.
James Haskell’s dangerous high tackle
Former Wasps and England flanker James Haskell quite rightly received a red card for a sickening high tackle on Harlequin’s Jamie Roberts. Haskell’s side was cruising to a victory before his brutal tackle left Roberts’ face down and motionless. The red card led to Wasps losing 33-28.
Elliot Daly’s fourth-minute woes
In 2016, Daly became the first England player to be sent off in 11 years after a poorly judged tackle on Argentina’s Leonardo Senatore saw him shown the red card after only four minutes of the match. It was clear that Daly instantly recognised his mistake, having had his eye on the ball until the last moment.
Despite being a man down, England still managed a 27-14 win over Los Pumas.
Charlie Ewel’s double yellow
The England lock received two yellow cards in a game with his club, Bath. The first yellow was for direct head contact, and the second came due to not wrapping his arms across the body when tackling. As is the rule, the two yellows equalled a red, and the Bath captain was sent off and given a week-long ban.
Gavin Henson throws Garan Evans
This particular encounter between Swansea and Llanelli is among many of Henson's controversies. Henson, who was playing for Swansea, was shown a red card after he launched Garan Evans into the advertising boards at Stradey Park. The move caused a big scuffle that Henson was lucky to avoid. Swansea ended up humiliated and lost 62-6.
Sebastien Vahaamahina’s brutal elbow
The Frenchman was shown the red card after he elbowed Wales’ Aaron Wainwright in the head during a maul. The move seemed pretty non-sensical and got Vahaamahina a 6-week ban… except he announced his retirement less than 24 hours after the incident.
Sam Warburton’s tip tackle
Warburton’s poorly judged tackle saw Wales go a man-down against France in the 2011 Rugby World Cup. The tip tackle on French winger Vincent Clerc saw Clerc land heavily on his head and neck. Referee Alain Rolland decided a straight red was warranted, ultimately costing Wales a spot in the final.