Rugby Union: The guru with the world at his feet

David Llewellyn talks to an unorthodox coach helping England find their kicking boots
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Convention has been given the boot in the England camp this season. The unthinkable has become the norm. The England coach, Clive Woodward, has applied forward thinking to his strategy and he has brought Dave Alred into the England set-up.

Alred is only in rugby for the kicks. Like Woodward he is unconventional but he does get results, as a string of England and Antipodean kickers will bear witness. And in one of his first sessions with England, Woodward handed the reins over to Alred. What followed would have had the old school twisting their ties in despair.

There is a saying that when God gave forwards feet and brains he only gave them enough blood to work them one at a time. When a forward does use his feet it can get him, and the rest of his team, into trouble, because the footwork could well be illegal, illogical or incompetent.

Alred's brief was to teach the so-called donkeys how to use their feet properly. And by the end of that session he had succeeded. He had the forwards knocking up delicate little chips for the threequarters to run on to and setting them up in attacking positions. "I have been telling them that the kick ahead is, in effect, a forward pass," explains Alred, who boasts that he has been given two life bans from union after playing professional American football and rugby league, following stints with Bristol and Bath.

But there is more. For a start he uses a stop watch to calculate the "hang time" of a high kick ahead, so that the chasing player can time his arrival on the opposition catcher to perfection. For another Alred does his best to deny the existence of the so-called "yips", which the luckless Mike Catt seemed to suffer against New Zealand last weekend.

Alred, 49, has been given the nod by Twickenham to help out - on a day- to-day basis - with the England squad. He would prefer a more permanent arrangement and that is still under discussion. Meanwhile he has to make the most of what time he has with the players. There are those who will wonder, after watching Catt miss three penalties and a cluster of touch kicks at Old Trafford, whether Alred can make any difference.

But the Bristol-born coach simply says: "I began helping Rob Andrew and Jon Webb when they were in their late 20s. They both went on to set kicking records for England. I wonder what they would have achieved if I had been able to coach them from their late teens.

"The former Ireland stand-off Ollie Campbell will tell you that it took him five years to learn to goal kick, with 300 to 500 shots at goal per week. I need about 18 months to produce a kicker."

He does not just work on the mechanics of kicking either. "It is as much a psychological thing as well," says Alred. "In practice I get the kicker to place the ball a couple of metres from the try line and then to kick at goal. You can barely see the gap between the uprights, but what I am trying to develop is the line to the target, so the kicker is driving down that line.

" But total concentration is the key and I get the kicker to focus on an individual stitch on the seam of the ball to help shut out everything else around him." As for the yips, Alred knows that as long as the technique is right it will only be a matter of time before the kicker gets it right again.

Alred is insistent that kicking is not a two-dimensional thing; kicks at goal, or kicks for touch. "There are restarts, kicks over the opposition heads to turn them, kicks deep into their half which deliberately don't go into touch, so that they find touch under pressure and we gain the throw-in at the resultant line-out," explains Alred, who is being sponsored by adidas during a post-graduate degree in The Neurology of Skill Acquisition at Loughborough University - research which includes kicking.

"There are also cross-kicks, chips and grubbers, so it makes sense if it is not just the No 10, the stand-off half, who executes them. Teams need to use their centres, their full-back, their wings, and, yes, their forwards, as kickers more often."

He teaches his pupils to search for perfection. Yet even when Andrew landed 11 kicks at goal out of 11 against Canada in 1994, Alred knew that by his stringent standards unless the ball, when it went between the uprights, travelled through "the middle of the middle", as he puts it, then the performance would have been less than perfect.

Alred frequently likens kicking to golf. "A professional golfer may only hit the perfect shot five times in a round; the margin is so small that the ordinary punter would not notice the difference and it is the same with goal-kicking. There are many kicks where the crowd will go wild with delight, but I know that technically it's not a good kick. And the kicker knows it's not a good kick.

"England against Scotland in, I think, 1995; the first shot at goal, 40 metres out, Rob Andrew kicked the ball and I don't think it rose more than about 12 feet at any one time. It was a Flying Frankfurter. It was said that he kept it low because of the wind, but it was a complete mis- hit.

"But because the line was right, in other words the power was applied more or less through the direction he wanted the ball to go, he got away with it."

There still has to be an element of luck; there are also outside influences, such as the weather, the ground conditions, the wind. When Alred's pupils step out on to a pitch he cannot be sure that they will succeed, because by then the boot is on another foot.