Masters of the Air: The 10 greatest aerial players in modern rugby – rising stars of Los Pumas and England to All Black legends
What goes up must come down, right?
As the kicking game in rugby has continued to progress and progress over the last few years, so has the ability of players to achieve incredible feats in the air.
From clutch tries in World Cups to astounding moments of brilliance under the high ball, rugby has witnessed some incredible players who can soar above the rest in their quest for glory.
We’re going to try to whittle them down to the ten best today, and will aim to base our picks not just on a player’s ability in the air, but on how such efforts transformed the game for their respective side and the success they achieved at the highest levels.
This list will also predominantly feature those from the modern era, as with tactical kicking now actively more encouraged and rewarded in rugby, the players tend to be more skewed towards more recent rugby history.
Think we’re missing a player here? Let us know in the comments.
Damian Smith (Australia)
A 21-capped Wallaby and one of Queensland’s strongest players at the dawn of the professional era, Damian Smith’s incredible aerial try in the 1995 World Cup quarter final against England has become one of the most celebrated in modern rugby, and a hallmark moment that generations after would find themselves mimicking.
Smith enjoyed a strong career on the wing for both Queensland and the Wallabies, and while he is not remembered as much as David Campese, Jason Little or Joe Roff, his ability to pull tries from nowhere in the air was one of his key strengths.
Emiliano Boffelli (Argentina)
In the modern day, one of the most exciting aerial players is still making a name for themselves in Europe and Argentina.
Emiliano Boffeli has become a reliable weapon for Los Pumas with his boot, but his skillset in the air taking tactical kicks and launching attacking raids has been a key part in the growth of the Pumas under Ledesma and Cheika.
His impact for Argentina is so influential that one notices that their attacking dynamic changes when he is off the field. One can only imagine the dangerous kicking game Los Pumas might’ve had if he shared the field with a certain Hugo Porta!
Cheslin Kolbe (South Africa)
When you think of the stars of the rugby world today, Cheslin Kolbe should be one that immediately comes to mind.
After writing himself into Rugby World Cup legend by scoring the decisive try in the 2019 Rugby World Cup, Kolbe has since gone on to become one of the most dangerous attacking players in the game, scoring 14 tries for the Boks and serving as the perfect aerial weapon to collect a perfectly weighted kick from Libbok or Pollard.
Throw in a second World Cup and a Lions tour win and Kolbe is already on his way to being one of the most decorated players of his generation.
Freddie Steward (England)
Even though he was named in World Rugby’s team of the year as the best fullback for 2022, Freddie Steward still has a long way to go in terms of his career. Based on current performances, there is a lot to like for England fans.
Extremely strong under the high ball with an ability to both counterattack quickly and secure position in tenuous situations, never were was his credentials on full display than the thrilling semi-final against the Springboks in the most recent World Cup.
While all eyes were on Owen Farrell as the English came desperately close to strangling South Africa, a key reason for their ability to do that was the fullback behind him.
Israel Folau (Australia/Tonga)
So, there is an elephant in the room. The firestorm that was whipped up around Israel Folau as one of the most controversial Wallabies ever has overshadowed what an outstanding attacking weapon and aerial player he was.
From his debut against the British & Irish Lions to his famous 2017 sky-high screamer against Scotland at the SFS, Folau was a big player who could fly through the air with almost perfect panache, and unsurprisingly, few players could match him in the mid-air contest.
His 37 international tries speaks volumes.
Jordie Barrett (New Zealand)
Sometimes overshadowed by the likes of his brothers Beauden or Scott, it is a shame because Jordie has transformed himself into the All Blacks ultimate utility back. He can, and frequently does, play everywhere and do everything.
While his boot and try-scoring ability are frequently celebrated, one of the least recognised parts of his game is his aerial prowess. When he kicks off in Super Rugby Pacific in a few weeks’ time, take the time to look at how valuable his aerial game is to ensure the Hurricanes go forward.
Josh Adams (Wales)
One of the strongest wingers in the Northern Hemisphere, Josh Adams has a lot of exciting talent going up against him including from Ireland’s Mack Hansen to Italy’s Ange Capuozzo. The exciting Cardiff winger takes the chocolates however, for several reasons.
His sheer ability as a finisher is unparalleled, picking up several hat tricks at international level. Part of a one-two punch combination with Dan Biggar, both players have been head and shoulders above the rest of the Welsh side over the last few years.
With much of his career still ahead of him, we expect to see him continue to excel in aerial showdowns.
Ben Smith (New Zealand)
A celebrated World Cup winner, Ben Smith is an ideal weapon to set up the likes of Beauden Barrett and Ma’a Nonu. A reliable fullback, wing and centre, his kicking skills on top of his aerial prowess were a key reason behind the success of the Highlanders in Super Rugby in the late 2010s, of which he became their highest-capped player.
The years after the 2015 World Cup saw Smith step forward into a senior role in the All Blacks, and at a time when the rest of the world caught up with New Zealand, he still set the highest standard for tactical kicking and aerial contests, up until his retirement in 2019 from the international game.
Dan Biggar (Wales)
This 112-capped Welsh veteran certainly has his detractors, but his dominance with the boot cannot be denied. A stalwart of the Wales setup for 15 years, his success also extends to multiple British & Irish Lions tours, and premierships with the likes of Northampton and Ospreys.
While often the distributor to other weapons in the Wales team, Biggar is a man of many talents and also excelled under the high ball, and it was reflected even when Wales underperformed on their day.
Sonny Bill Williams (New Zealand)
Finishing off with one of the retirees from the All Blacks 2019 Rugby World Cup, SBW enjoyed a strong career across rugby league, which, like Folau, saw him bring a strong skillset in the air to the 15-man code.
Winning over 90% of all matches he was involved in at an international level, his ability to not only gather the ball in the air but then turn moments into barnstorming attacks made him one of the most dangerous attacking weapons of his time. Considering the personnel playing for New Zealand, that is saying something!