Kicking guru in the wings

Chris Rea says England should welcome Andrew's tutor into the fold
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The Independent Online
A QUESTION which England will be asking themselves as they prepare for the World Cup is why Rob Andrew, their most valuable asset and the player they can least afford to do without, should one week kick like an angel and the next like a complete duffer. Had he been as prodigal in his goal-kicking against Scotland as he was last week for Wasps against Bath, England would not now be champions of Europe.

Andrew is a rugby phenomenon, that rarest of breeds now almost extinct, whose life outside the game is infinitely more demanding in terms of time and responsibility than the commitment he has to make as an international sportsman. The amount Andrew withdraws from the reserves of goodwill supplied by his employers have to be repaid. The fame he has accrued in his 10 years as England's fly-half, the kudos his company might have gained from his manifold achievements all over the globe, have not, in themselves, propelled him to the top of a commercial world inhabited by the highly intelligent and even more highly ambitious.

And so, when Andrew is not playing for his country he is often working long into the night for himself and his family. It is England's good fortune, however, that in the quasi- professional game of rugby union, no one is more thoroughly professional in attitude than Andrew. Each week before an international match this season he has spent many hours in the company of Dave Alred, not the first preacher in history for whom there is apparently no room at the inn, and certainly not alone as a prophet without honour in his own country.

Indeed, in the present England pecking order, Alred is not so much in the back-room as in the boiler-room, the household equivalent of the scullery maid. His invitation to join the squad comes through Andrew and he is not even accommodated at the team hotel during international weekends. In the eyes of the Rugby Football Union he is still tainted by his association with American football which he played as a professional.

Yet Alred's record as a kicking coach is stunningly successful. Stuart Barnes could always run but it wasn't until he mastered the art of kicking under Alred's guidance, a game played as much in the head as on the field, that he found a measure of fulfilment and contentment in a career which so often fell short of his own expectations. Jon Webb, when he left Bristol, was so disenchanted with the game and so utterly depressed by his own form that he was on the point of packing it in. He, like Barnes, came under Alred's influence and when he finally retired two years ago, he was England's record points scorer. It was that achievement which Andrew so majestically overhauled in the Calcutta Cup match a fortnight ago.

Alred has now begun to work with Mike Catt but, as with Andrew, it is an informal arrangement without official sanction from the RFU. Jack Rowell, when he was coach at Bath, worked closely with Alred and encouraged him to increase his commitment to the club and to those players like Barnes and Webb who were so obviously benefiting from his tuition. Rowell appreciates Alred's value and is certainly shrewd enough to know that an art as precise as kicking requires constant tuning and refinement.

Andrew's experiences in the last couple of weeks bear testimony to that. Alred's presence with the squad in South Africa would therefore be extremely desirable and what Rowell wants he usually gets. He must also be aware that if England's establishment remain indifferent to Alred other countries have been plugging into the power generated by his methods, notably France and Australia. Alred has been working with the Australian World Cup players, advising them on all aspects of their kicking, and is due to return before the Wallabies go back to South Africa.

In the meantime we are invited to believe that the Australians, having watched England win the Grand Slam, politely applauded before contemptuously dismissing their chances of winning the World Cup. That charming vignette, credible though it is, is as unlikely as the presentation of the John Harvey Jones award for man management to the Welsh Rugby Union. For a start, the very idea of the Aussies applauding the Poms for anything, let alone politely, is preposterous. But not even the most brashly confident or brazenly foolish would dismiss this England side on the evidence of what they saw in the Five Nations' Championship.

It is not so long ago, remember, that Australia laboured to beat Ireland and Italy and came perilously close to losing against both. And for all the promotion surrounding it and the exaggerated claims made on its behalf, the Super Ten series is light years away from the World Cup. the argument that Queensland, Transvaal, Natal or Auckland would win the Five Nations' Championship is futile speculation, and cannot detract from England's achievement in winning all four matches in the highly charged environment of the international championship.

That England have players of the highest quality is not in doubt. Physically and mentally they are a match for anyone. Their problem is that technically and tactically they are no closer to discovering whether they have the ability to perform on the hard-baked, high- velocity surfaces in South Africa where time and space will be at a premium, than they were at the start of the season.