Golden advice kicked into touch

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The Independent Online
It Has Not been a good week for England's leading clubs and in particular for Old Eprucians. Shown the door by Sam Chisholm, the boss of Sky TV, they have lost their zealously touted support from the Scottish players and have achieved the hitherto impossible by uniting the International Board against what the game's rulers see as the common enemy, the greed of a few clubs in England.

Epruc are now at the mercy of the Rugby Football Union, whose knowledge of the past, one hopes, is keener than their vision of the future. Lasting peace seldom follows a punitive treaty. But on past performance there is still scope for the RFU to get it terribly wrong. One of the few valid points made by the clubs during this squalid fight is that the RFU are not fit in their present state to run a professional game. That applies to matters on the field as much as off it, which raises the interesting question - whatever happened to Dave Alred, counsellor and confidant to so many of the world's finest kickers?

Alred, you may remember, played a vital role in helping England reach the semi-finals of the World Cup in South Africa. With seconds remaining in that pulsating quarter-final against Australia, Mike Catt unleashed a monster kick to touch and from the line-out Rob Andrew's soaring drop goal carried England to an unlikely victory. Both Catt and Andrew were under Alred's tutelage at the time.

That achievement raised rugby's profile here to unprecedented heights and probably increased tenfold the cash flowing in to the RFU. Imagine what it would mean to England, in financial terms, were they to win the World Cup in three years. No expense, you might think, would be spared in the efforts to reach that goal. But while Alred has had calls from Australia, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, there has been nothing but a dispiriting silence from headquarters.

Alred has every reason to be miffed because, despite the avalanche of tries being scored this season, the art of kicking remains as important as ever. Perhaps even more so. When that colossal spat between the Springboks and the All Blacks was at its height last summer the chief difference between the sides lay in the quality of the kicking - from the hand as well as the ground. Perversely, the new laws which encourage the runners have, if anything, increased the options for the kickers.

Moreover, with the advent of the professional game, players will be fitter, faster and stronger which requires their skill levels to be commensurately higher. "Under pressure," says Alred, "players automatically revert to their old habits. Raise their skill levels sufficiently, clear out the tactical baggage, and they will instinctively do the right thing even in the tightest situations. That applies as much to handling, passing and running as it does to kicking."

There is a deep-rooted suspicion, understandable in some cases, of the fanatical theorist which may in part explain the RFU's reluctance to embrace Alred's concepts. But Alred has proved time and again that his theories work in practice. At all levels and with all ages.

In an under-16 masterclass competition sponsored by BMW and Adidas during the summer, the youngsters coached by Alred were hoofing the ball huge distances. The winning kick carried a staggering 57 metres. Countless players from all over the world are willingly prepared to vouch for his methods and are successfully putting into practice his well tried and tested theories. But instead of working alongside the likes of Catt, Alex King and Paul Grayson as a full-time member of the national coaching team, Alred is engaged in yet more research into technical and physical development and mental adjustment at Loughborough University. He is also helping Rob Andrew's Newcastle.

He has had a number of fascinating interviews with old masters such as Ollie Campbell and Grant Fox in an attempt to discover what is the difference that makes the difference. In other words, what are the mental keys which separate and elevate players of similar ability and equip them for the international stage?

Alred is increasingly frustrated by England's indifference towards him. Jack Rowell has promised his support but, as Alred points out, if his methods are to be effective they must be continuously applied. "If Nick Faldo plays a poor round of golf, he doesn't wait for a couple of weeks to correct the fault," says Alred. "He goes immediately to the practice ground. It was the same last season with Paul Grayson. Two days after he had made a hash of his kicking against Wales we were working on his technique and mental preparation. After that he didn't look back." The question is whether or not the RFU are prepared to look forward.