As that well-worn maxim goes: There are three kinds of lies – lies, damned lies, and statistics. However, statistics are also a very handy tool to separate fact from fiction and have used numbers to try and identify who rugby’s biggest ‘thugs’ really are.


South Africans have a generally bad reputation (and at times some players are and were rather brutal), but a close look at red and yellow card statistics leaves you realising that perception is perhaps flawed.

Let’s take the legend that is Bakkies Botha. A quick google search for ‘biggest thugs’ will have him listed in the top three with an array of accompanying videos to suggest that he is the dirtiest player ever to set foot on the field. However, that is a classic case of ‘perception’ being flawed.

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RugbyPass takes a trek through South African rugby in Jim Hamilton’s Rugby Explorer

Botha is truly a giant of the game. However, not once in the 85 Test matches he played was he red-carded. Despite the odd ban – after being cited – his record is far more vestal that most of his peers. In fact, Botha comes nowhere near the top ten of the biggest ‘thugs’ in international rugby.

Then there is the bad rap that another hard man Schalk Burger got for the physical nature of his game. He also has no red cards on his record. He does have six yellow cards – one for eye-gouging. But does that make him the game’s biggest thug? Not even close.

Using a formula where a red card is worth five points and a yellow card worth two points, it can be calculated who the top ten ‘thugs’ in the game are. Based on this formula of red and yellow cards earned in international rugby, retired Georgian back row forward Vito Kolelishvili ranks the worst.

He was red-carded just once in his 50 Tests but yellow-carded eight times, earning him 21 ‘thug’ points. Kolelishvili just edges Argentine bad-boy Tomas Lavanini – two red cards and five yellow cards in 56 Tests – 20 points.


A very close third is Italian hardman Marco Bortolami – one red and seven yellow cards in 112 Tests for 19 points. Surprisingly, the South African placed highest in the top ten is someone you would least expect, legendary wing and record-breaking try-scorer Bryan Habana. He collected seven yellow cards in 124 Tests – mostly for cynical fouls, nothing nasty. His 14 ‘thug’ points place him in joint seventh place.

Another interesting name is Wallaby captain Michael Hooper, who sits in joint fifth place with eight yellow cards, 16 points. Burger and ten other players sit joint ninth on this list, all on 12 points.

If you look at some of the domestic competitions, a very different and interesting picture emerges. The English Premiership has some really bad boys at the top of their list. The most red cards in the Premiership belong to England prop Julian White – five in 164 games.


He is beaten into a distant second place at the top of the Premiership ‘thug’ list by David Paice, the hooker collecting three red cards and 18 yellow cards in his 203 matches for 51 thug points. White, with seven yellow cards to go with his five red cards, manages 39 points. England utility forward Gareth Archer comes in third, two reds and 14 yellow for 28 points in 121 points.

Super Rugby also has a runaway winner. All Black Ma’a Nonu is well clear with his two red cards and eight yellow cards in his 89 Super Rugby matches for 26 points. Bismarck du Plessis probably earned most of his bad rap in Super Rugby, sharing second place with fellow South African Deon Stegmann, with one red card and five yellow cards for 15 points.

Jean Deysel and James Horwill are the only Super Rugby players other than Nonu to have earned more than one red card. Both collected two reds and two yellow cards for 14 points.


Vito Kolelishvili (Georgia): 1 red, 8 yellow – 21pts

Tomas Lavanini (Argentina): 2 red, 5 yellow – 20pts

Marco Bortolami (Italy): 1 red, 7 yellow – 19pts

Paul Emerick (USA): 2 red, 3 yellow – 18pts

Mario Cagnani (Uruguay): 2 red, 3 yellow – 16pts

Michael Hooper (Australia): 0 red, 8 yellow – 16pts

Jamie Cudmore (Canada): 0 red, 7 yellow – 14pts

Bryan Habana (South Africa): 0 red, 7 yellow – 14pts


David Paice: 3 red, 18 yellow – 51pts

Julian White: five red, 7 yellow – 39pts

Gareth Archer: 2 red, 14 yellow – 38pts

Chris Hala’ufia: 2 red, 12 yellow – 34pts

Joe Marler: 2 red, 12 yellow – 34pts


Ma’a Nonu: 2 red, 8 yellow – 26pts

Bismark du Plessis: 1 red, 5 yellow – 26pts

Deon Stegmann: 1 red, five yellow – 15pts

Jean Deysel: 2 red, two yellows – 14pts

James Horwill: 2 red, two yellow – 14pts

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