Rugby Union: Goal guru kicks off for Woodward

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The Independent Online
If England's goalkickers manage to put the boot into Australia in a little over six weeks' time, the Wallabies will know who to blame.

The much-maligned Dave Alred was back on national duty yesterday and as Chris Hewett reports, his appearance marked a small but significant triumph for the new coaching panel.

Clive Woodward's honeymoon period may not prove quite as long-lasting as Tony Blair's - New Labour have only William Hague to worry about while England's recently appointed coach is about to undergo a four-week trial by All Black, Springbok and Wallaby - but just at the moment, he is getting his own way on all the important issues. The specialist presence of Dave Alred, philosopher king to the world's finest goalkickers, at Bisham Abbey yesterday signalled Woodward's first victory over the blazered denizens of Twickenham.

Not that the new boy would dream of putting it in such stark terms, of course, for diplomacy is all in these early days of his stewardship. But he has undeniably succeeded where Jack Rowell, his predecessor, consistently failed by convincing the Rugby Football Union of Alred's importance to the England cause. "I am absolutely of the opinion that we need a full- time kicking coach and at the moment, Dave is the best in the business," said Woodward, who consulted the kickers in his squad before making his pitch to the powers that be.

That Alred is also the most expensive in the business has long lodged in the RFU's collective craw. The Bristol-based former American football kicker was once blacklisted by the then amateur union authorities for having the brass neck to accept money from the Minnesota Vikings and last season he managed the remarkable feat of being deemed "too professional" for the newly professionalised game. In short, senior figures in the national set-up still suspect his motives, considering him a mercenary, a hired hand whose instincts are to serve the highest bidder rather than nail his colours to the red rose mast.

Certainly, Alred has worked extensively with kickers from rival nations - the Wallabies themselves have used his expertise for some years - yet he insists that, given the right terms, he would happily devote himself to England. "Of course I want to be involved," he said yesterday. "This is a start. I'm here on a session-by-session basis at the moment but I'm hopeful of things sorting themselves out over the long term."

If they do, Woodward will have his dream team in place: John Mitchell as assistant coach; Richard Hill and Rob Smith on board with the A team; Phil Keith-Roach as the scrummaging guru; Jim Blair as the fitness taskmaster; and Alred on the ball with the marksmen.

Perhaps the most influential member of Woodward's think-tank will not be on the payroll, however. Ed Morrison, the international referee who controlled the 1995 World Cup final, attended yesterday's session in an advisory capacity and will continue to do so during the build-up to this autumn's forbidding quartet of Tests with the southern superpowers.

"The professional coach leaves nothing to chance," said Woodward, concerned if not alarmed at the lingering confusion surrounding the ruck and tackle laws and acutely conscious of the many conflicts of interpretation that exist between European referees and their brethren from south of the equator. "International matches can be won and lost on small technicalities and Ed's knowledge will help us straighten a few things out. I also hope to speak to each of the Test referees before their respective matches to find out how they want things done."

Roughly a quarter of Woodward's 23-man "elite" squad were unable to train yesterday - John Bentley, Jeremy Guscott, Matt Dawson, Kyran Bracken, Simon Shaw and Tim Rodber were the men in possession of sick notes - but the coach was adamant that all would be available for selection when the Wallabies hit town for the opening international of the season on 15 November. "John, Jerry and Kyran have yet to play this season but they are close to match fitness," he said. "They wouldn't be in this party if we didn't think they had a chance of making the Australia game.

"I know we have only a couple of these Wednesday sessions left to us, but by the time we face the Wallabies we'll have had ample time to get the team in shape. To be honest, I can't wait to stop all this theorising and play a match. Once we've had 80 minutes against Australia, I'll have a much better idea of where we stand. They have a new coach, as do the Springboks, and it will be fascinating to see how us newcomers approach the job in hand."