From The Vaults

20 October 2022
Sending off is no longer the ultimate disgrace?

The All Blacks were unbeaten on their tour of the UK and this was their 28th match. Both sides were fully primed and so aggressive were the opening exchanges that the Welsh referee Albert Freethy issued a general warning to both sides after seven minutes of play. Three minutes later he repeated the warning and ordered Cyril Brownlie to leave the field. In a post-match interview the referee stated that he ordered Brownlie off for "deliberately kicking on the leg an English forward, who was lying face downwards on the ground" and "therefore he was obliged to act drastically".

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the incident, and views were expressed afterwards that it was an English forward who should have been sent off, the 14-man All Black team performed heroically over the next 70 minutes to record a 17-11 victory against a strong English side captained by the great Harlequins forward Wavell Wakefield.

It would be more than 40 years before a second player was dismissed in a major international, this time at Murrayfield in December 1967. Once again it was an All Black second row forward who transgressed with five minutes of the match remaining. Colin Meads launched a wild kick which failed to connect with a rolling ball on the ground after a ruck but instead hit the Scottish fly half David Chisholm on the head. The Irish referee Kevin Kelleher had already cautioned Meads for rough play earlier in the match and immediately sent Meads off the field. Although hugely controversial, the sending off did not affect the result as the All Blacks retained their 14-3 lead at the final whistle.

As the number of international matches increased during the 1970s, it was in retrospect inevitable that more dismissals would occur. The English prop Mike Burton threw a retaliatory punch in the opening exchanges of the second test against Australia at Ballymore, Brisbane in May 1975 and then almost immediately late-tackled the Australian winger, Doug Osborne. There were no neutral referees or official TV back-up in those days and the Australian referee, Bob Burnett, gave Burton his marching orders. Peter West of The Times took a very dim view of the incident and indeed the entire match:

"The sight of 16 forwards flinging punches in all directions, the modern result of flagrantly violent play by individuals, is no prettier a sight that the incident that sparks off the general mayhem, but it is becoming more common. What happened in Brisbane - undoubtedly triggered off by Australia's intimidatory approach - was a disgrace to the rugby union game."

Only a year later in June 1976 the sending off of the giant Fijian prop Jo Sovau in the 57th minute of their third test against Australia at the Sydney Cricket Ground caused a furore. So incensed were the Fiji team that they had to be persuaded by their manager to return to the field after they had all walked off in a gesture of solidarity with their dismissed colleague. Within a year two combative forwards, Geoff Wheel of Wales and Willie Duggan of Ireland, became the first players to be sent off in a Five Nations match for punching, a bout of fisticuffs that was seen in the full glory of television. The times were definitely a-changing.

Any concerns for the players over the social consequences of being sent off were largely eradicated in the 1990s. Suspensions were duly served but players were very seldom permanently debarred from appearing for their country again. A further 20 players were sent off, including six players in the 1991 and 1995 World Cups, prior to the game becoming fully professional in August 1995. To universal surprise even the hugely respected French centre Philippe Sella was given his marching orders in a match against Canada in June 1994.

Concerns about the health and safety of players have rightly played a large part in the dramatic increase of players being given a red card, and yellow cards are being given out in abundance by referees with a second yellow card automatically ensuring a player's dismissal. The game is grappling with complex issues but with the women's Rugby World Cup currently in play and the men's Rugby World Cup next year, it would be a brave person who would not bet on the likelihood of a few matches in both these tournaments being seriously impacted by the number of players who are sent off.


  • The Book of English International Rugby 1871-1982 - John Griffiths (Willow Books 1982)
  • The History of Scottish Rugby - Sandy Thorburn (Johnston & Bacon 1980)
  • History of Welsh International Rugby - John Billot (2nd edition Roman Way Books 1999)
  • Men in Black - RH Chester & NAC McMillan (Moa Beckett 5th ed 1994)
  • They came to conquer 1967-2002 Volume II -Maxwell Howell, Lingyu Xie et al (Focus Publishing Ltd)
  • World Rugby Museum spreadsheets (Richard Steele)

about the author

A professional musician and arts administrator, Richard Steele has been on the committee of the World Rugby Museum at Twickenham since 2005 and is the co-author of the RFU's 150th anniversary book England Rugby 150 Years.