Analysis: The small details that make a huge difference in winning the aerial battle

Professional performance analyst Eoin Toolan examines the contests in the air in this Six Nations.

A KEY STATISTIC from Round 3 of the Six Nations was that winning teams kicked more than their opponents.

France (40), Scotland (26) and England (24) all had various degrees of success utilising their kicking game whether that be by scoring tries, controlling field position or applying pressure in the air.

There are multiple facets to dissect when analysing a team’s kicking strategy but for the purposes of this article we will take a look at the aerial contest and the key components to winning the battle in the air.


This is a commonly used term in the modern game and is a vital form of protection for the receiving catcher. Ultimately, if the kick is accurate with the required hang time (3.5 to 4 seconds) and distance (22 to 28 metres) then the advantage is generally with the chasing player as they will have momentum on their side whereas the receiver will more often than not be in a relatively stationary position.

Escorts are therefore required to compromise the chaser’s momentum into the catch and deny them direct access to the receiver.

uk-england-and-ireland-guinness-six-nations Johnny May and Jordan Larmour compete in the air. SIPA USA / PA Images SIPA USA / PA Images / PA Images

Generally, on a contestable kick it will be the edge defenders – outside centres and wingers – who will be charged with identifying the primary kick-chaser and performing the escort.

By law, the retreating player cannot change their line of running when working back towards their catcher, which despite being inconsistently refereed, has caused an adjustment in how the escort is now performed.

Rather than sprinting back shoulder-to-shoulder with the chaser and essentially trying to run them off the road, there is more of a subtle art to proceedings which requires the escort to become a shield and serve as a blocker directly in front of their catcher.

There are three key factors to this escorting policy: 

  1. Sight the ball off the kicker’s foot to have an understanding of where the landing zone will be and direct their line of running to this position.
  2. Focus on the receiver to get an accurate indication of where the ball is going to land so that they can execute the shield accurately.
  3. Scan for the primary chaser to understand which direction the chaser will be coming from whether it be on their inside or outside shoulder.

If performed well, the receiving catcher should have one or two blockers directly in front of where they jump for the ball which should deny the kick-chaser access to the contest. 

England undoubtedly got the upper hand against Ireland in this area at Twickenham on Sunday and there are two contrasting images that illustrate this.

The first comes from an Owen Farrell catch in backfield off a Ross Byrne kick. While the kick doesn’t have the required hang time or distance to make it an aerial contest for the chasing Keith Earls, its proximity to the touchline potentially puts Farrell in a compromised position.

Picture 1

As highlighted above, Elliot Daly is charged with escorting duties on Earls and performs them exceptionally well, executing the three key factors outlined above and crucially providing his captain with enough protection to prevent Earls from landing a dominant tackle and forcing an Irish lineout.


[Click here if you cannot view the clip above]

In contrast, much of England’s early momentum in the game came through Ireland’s inability to effectively escort, allowing the likes of Jonny May, Manu Tuilagi and Daly direct access to Irish catchers.

In the opening two minutes, George Ford launched two accurate bombs, both of which England won back.

The second aerial contest is displayed below and shows that May has beaten the Irish escorts to the landing zone and is about to have a one-on-one battle with Jordan Larmour in the air.

Picture 1

Jacob Stockdale initially sights the kick from Ford and then Larmour’s first movement forward, but then seems to have a moment of hesitation, perhaps unsure if the fullback or the retreating Robbie Henshaw is going to take the catch.

Crucially, Stockdale fails to identify May as the primary kick-chaser and provides a running line to the catch via his inside shoulder which proves fatal. We will touch on the details of the aerial contest itself a little later in the article.


[Click here if you cannot view the clip above]

France’s kicking game was a catalyst in their first win over Wales in Cardiff for 10 years. Their opening try came from a contestable kick and it is a great illustration of a failed escort and the impact it can have on the game.

In this instance, it is Leigh Halfpenny – who has excellent aerial skills – in the backfield for Wales, with Nick Tompkins and Josh Adams as his escorts in the frontline. As Romain Ntamack executes the kick, both Virimi Vakatawa and Teddy Thomas are loaded to chase.

Tompkins reacts well and initiates the escorting process working hard back to his catcher, aware of the threat of Vakatawa. Adams does likewise, however he crucially fails to identify Thomas and takes an inside line to block Vakatawa which allows the Racing 92 winger contest in the air with Halfpenny, as we see below.


[Click here if you cannot view the clip above]

While the Welsh fullback is technically in a great position to execute the catch, with no blocker in front of him, Thomas is able to impact the collision with an outstretched arm and forces a knock-on into the hands of the on-rushing Anthony Bouthier, who scores the opening try for France.

Had Adams identified his opposite winger earlier, he could have kept Thomas on his outside shoulder which would have provided Halfpenny with sufficient protection.

Picture 1

Unfortunately for Wales, Adams and Tompkins end up double-jobbing on Vakatawa, all of which highlights the small margins of international rugby and the importance of small details such as escorting.

Winning the space

The second crucial aspect to the contest is the one in the air and having the ability to win the space. Often when there is a one-on-one aerial clash, it is the player who can execute these three key factors who will win the battle:

  1. Jump through the ball, not to the ball. As I mentioned earlier, a lot of the momentum will be with the kick-chaser as they will most likely be close to full speed when they jump which will enable them to maintain a forward motion through the contest. The receiver must time their run into the catch as they will normally be coming from a more stationary position in backfield. Arriving early can lead to the catcher getting stuck under the ball which will cause them to jump up rather than forward, denying momentum if there is a collision in the air.
  2. Stay Square. The number on the back of a player’s jersey should be facing their own tryline and the crest on the front of jersey facing the opposition tryline. Maintaining a high knee off the non-jumping leg and elbows tight to the body will enable the jumper to be in a compact position to contend with any mid-air collision. Any rotation in the air will compromise the jumper if there is an impact with an opposition player and crucially on landing will stop the player from immediately motioning forward.
  3. Be Brave. High ball catching definitely requires a no-fear mindset as there can be no hesitation when entering a mid-air contest.

We have already analysed the escorting component to the below contest in the England v Ireland game. Now let’s take a look at the contest in the air and see why May came out on top over Larmour.

As mentioned previously, the advantage is generally with the chasing player as he will be entering the contest with momentum and this is definitely the case in this instance.

Larmour is jumping to the ball which is confirmed by the fact the studs on his boots are facing directly down to the ground and his torso is an upright position. Contrast this to the English winger, who is clearly in a forward-motioning position, the studs on his back foot facing the camera and knee pointing forward.

Picture 1

While both players do well not to rotate through the air, it is May’s momentum and crucially maintaining his elbow position close to his body (note how Larmour’s arms are splayed away from his body) that enables the Englishman to win the space and the ball.


[Click here if you cannot view the clip above]

Dan Biggar is possibly the best fly-half in world rugby when it comes to a high ball contest.

He is exceptionally brave which is one of the key factors, but he is also technically excellent. He led from the front in this area against France and came out on top in what many would consider some unlikely match-ups.

France systematically held number eight Gregory Alldritt in backfield to utilize his athleticism and power to counter-attack during the game.

On this occasion, Biggar has kicked and chased his own bomb and you can see the contrast in body shapes at the moment of the catch. The number on the back of the French player is on full display which means he has rotated 180 degrees through the contest while Biggar has stayed square through the catch.

Picture 1

Despite the fact Biggar has arrived fractionally early, which has caused him to jump to rather than through the ball, his square body position enables him to win the collision and crucially continue forward post-catch and throw a delightful cut-out pass to Hadleigh Parkes.


[Click here if you cannot view the clip above]

A second clip from Biggar in the same game really highlights the impact of staying square through the catch to win the space.

Whilst there is potentially some questionable escorting from Welsh players in the lead-up, it is the collision with Biggar’s own team-mate that is the most telling.

Both Biggar and Halfpenny move forward onto the ball and with neither hearing each other’s call – likely due to the noise in the Principality Stadium – they both jump together and collide with one another.


[Click here if you cannot view the clip above]

At the moment of impact, Biggar is in the perfect position with a high knee facing forward which enables him to easily win the collision with Halfpenny who has rotated in the air. Again, on landing the fly-half is able to continue his momentum forward due to the fact he stayed square.

The last example below is from Ireland’s opening game of the Six Nations against Scotland. One again, it highlights the importance of maintaining a strong body position through contact.

This time Blair Kinghorn has elected to catch the ball above his head, generally a by-product of arriving under the ball too early, while his rotation is evidenced by the fact the number on his back is facing the sideline.

Catching above the head and side-on clearly leaves the winger’s ribs exposed and despite the fact that Larmour is late to the pitch of the ball, his technique enables him to exploit Kinghorn’s vulnerability.

Picture 1

It could be argued that Larmour’s challenge is slightly late, but no Scottish player appeals for a penalty and Ireland go on the attack. 

Again, this is an example of momentum being on the side of the chaser which coupled with good body position makes it very difficult for the receiving catcher to win the space and ultimately the ball.


[Click here if you cannot view the clip above]

The kicking game has been a strong feature of the Six Nations so far this year.

The contest in the air has never been so keenly fought and it is the small one-percenters that so often go unnoticed are critical to the winning and losing of those mini battles and, indeed, the war.

Your Voice
Readers Comments
This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
Leave a Comment
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.

    Leave a commentcancel