Can You Hand Off to the Face in Rugby Union?

To cut to the chase, strictly speaking, you can Hand Off to the face in Rugby, but there are exceptions.

Rugby, as a sport often is perceived to be both brutal and physically demanding, often with confusion around just how physical you can be. One such contentious issue is the concept of hand-offs to the face. Is it a legal move? Or does it cross the line in terms of player safety? In this article, we will break down the rules and regulations surrounding hand offs in rugby. We will explore the official guidelines provided by governing bodies and World Rugby.

The controversy surrounding the hand off to the face

Rugby has always been a sport where players are expected to exhibit strength and aggression on the field. The hand off or fend, a move where a player forcefully pushes away an opponent to gain an advantage, has always been part of the game, one that’s often questioned. Having coached both mini and youth rugby for a good few years, it’s a very common question from players and parents alike.

Why? Well, my best guess is for people new to the sport it’s an action that’s fairly unique to the sport. In the vast majority of contact sports a bit of pushing and shoving is to be expected, compulsory even. A flat hand to the face however, is almost always illegal. Whilst it might seem like a dangerous manouvre, as someone who has been on the receiving end of these many times, I assure you the pain is much more physchological than it is physical.

hand off to the face in rugby
New Zealand’s Will Jordan delivers a palm to the face of Wales’ Tomos Williams. Perfect technique.

Rules and regulations regarding the hand-off in rugby

World Rugby defines the Hand off as;

A permitted action, taken by a ball-carrier to fend off an opponent, using the palm of the hand.

World Rugby Hand Off definition

However in Law 9: Foul Play it also states

A ball-carrier is permitted to hand off an opponent provided excessive force is not used.

World Rugby Hand Off Foul Play Law

In addition, World Rugby’s guidelines place a significant emphasis on player safety and fair play. While the rules do not explicitly ban hand-offs to the face, they do state that any action that endangers the safety of an opponent is strictly prohibited. Referees are given the authority to penalize players if they believe a hand-off to the face violates this principle of player safety.

Superstar referee Wayne Barnes explains this brilliantly as part of his ‘Throw the Book’ youtube series below;

Hand Off’s in Youth & Mini Rugby regulations

Each countries union sets the rules for youth and mini rugby so there is some variation, but the vast majority of youth or mini rugby regulations adhere to the following;

  • No hand off’s permitted until under 12’s
  • At under 12’s hand off’s are below the shoulder only
  • At under 14’s hand off’s permitted provided they are not used with excessive force or deliberate.
  • Across the Womans youth game, hand off’s not permitted until senior level

You can find the IRFU’s full mini and youth rugby regulations here

Why are hand off’s discouraged in Mini and Youth Rugby?

Given that they are an integral aspect of the game often adding excitement or spice! You could argue that Mini and Youth players are being left at a disadvantage by not coaching these techniques. Or that removing this move would undermine the physical nature of rugby and lead to a false idea of the sport as they move up the levels.

As someone who coaches in an area where rugby is very much a minority sport, I can say without hesitation, that mini and youth rugby have enough techniques to be coaching. The governing bodies would argue that it’s more important to encourage players to carry the ball in two hands. To encourage attackers to avoid defenders using offloads, deception, footwork and evasion rather than brute force, an argument I’d agree with that wholeheartedly.

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