Cards like Christmas: Rugby World Cup’s red and yellow records

And it was all yellow.

First published in 2019, adjusted with some additional information and republished in 2023.

Back in 2019, the record was broken for the most red cards issued at a tournament. Seven players had been given their marching orders to earn that dubious honor, and 2023 has gotten off to a pretty colorful start.

England vs. Argentina saw a player sent off and sin-binned in the first half, and much like in 2019, yellow cards will be a hot topic, with every match of the opening two days seeing a player sin-binned.

Back in 2019, stricter rules meant that New Zealand was even adapting their training approach to do drills with just 14 men on the field, according to reports by New Zealand media.

Steve Hansen’s Quote form 2019

He was quoted by The Guardian as saying:

“I do not know whether breaching the guidelines is avoidable, but we have to find a way. Under the guidelines, the yellow cards we received against Namibia were fair, but it is incredibly difficult when players are falling at your feet.

There are certain things we have to make sure we do: you cannot have an arm behind your shoulder, because it looks like you’re swinging an arm, and you have to be able to recognize how quickly a ball-carrier is falling, being able to pull out of a tackle or do it differently.”

Changes in Rugby Laws.

Changes to the laws, especially in the same year as a global tournament, will almost always show a spike in terms of cards, but the 2019 Rugby World Cup is some way off from the 2015 edition where a staggering 52 yellow cards were handed out.

Yellow cards were first introduced in the sport in 1995, but back then, the carded player would play on. It wasn’t until after the 1999 Rugby World Cup that the sin-bin penalty was introduced.

Team-By-Team Breakdown

More intriguing perhaps is the team-by-team breakdown of yellow cards at Rugby World Cups. Unsurprisingly, Fiji and Samoa top the all-time list (both on 12). Writing in his book, Ben Ryan, the former Fiji Sevens coach, was fairly scathing of officials against Pacific Island teams, noting that decisions are often made with some prejudice.

But the All Blacks, in joint second with Namibia and Tonga (11 each), might surprise some. The universally held belief that New Zealand gets away with a bit more than most might leave some armchair pundits a few points to ponder. At the 2015 edition, New Zealand received the second-most yellow cards (five), just one behind Namibia on six.

At the 2019 edition, they’re sitting on two – some way behind leaders Samoa on six. But, considering the heavy scrutiny, perhaps Hansen’s idea of training with 14 men isn’t that far off.

*Figures not inclusive of all matches at the 2019 Rugby World Cup.