Much as we look forward to the flying Fijians, Wallabies, All Blacks and – you never know – Welsh, Scots, Irish and Englishmen running in tries from all areas of the field, the next seven weeks of the World Cup are bound to feature matches decided not by dazzling hands but the simple, single swipe of a boot. So much do England and their manager Martin Johnson believe in the necessity of getting their goal-kicking right that they have re-hired the man who honed Jonny Wilkinson's technique for his dropped goal of glory in the 2003 final. And Dave Alred says Wilkinson – England's leading points scorer, too, in their run to the 2007 final – is kicking better than ever.
"Yes, absolutely, he's still improving without doubt," says Alred, 62, whose work with England in 2003 earned him an MBE. He cites a training session at Twickenham three days before Wilkinson steered England to their recent 20-9 win over Ireland: "Jonny kicked 16 drop goals: eight with the right, eight with the left, from 35 yards without missing. And he will still get better. You can always get better."
The Rugby Football Union dumped Alred and his fellow assistant coaches, Joe Lydon and Phil Larder, in April 2006. But Wilkinson wasn't having it, and continued to bring Alred to England training for his legendary practice-makes-perfect post-session stints. Last autumn Toby Flood, Wilkinson's England fly-half rival, joined in and Alred has now come full circle, restored by Johnson as an assistant coach for this World Cup. The passing years in Rugby World Cups have seen one momentous kick after another: Joel Stransky's drop to win the 1995 final; Steve Larkham's career-first "field goal" as the Aussies call it, in the '99 semi-final; Stirling Mortlock's calamitous miss for the Wallabies against England in the 2007 quarters to name a few.
"The worry I have is that people very quickly label you a sports psychologist," says Alred. "That you just come in and have a chat. It's not. It's a whole attitude. It's a behavioural change. It's little and often, to keep pushing and pushing. I am trying to create mindsets for the players, then helping the coaches use the tools I've developed with the golfers in particular, which is mentally one of the most brutal games. You have one shot that leads to a triple bogey and it costs you the tournament. In the percentage terms of what you can achieve, you achieve 99.6 per cent right, and that one shot costs you. So I prepare people to, a – try and avoid it, but, b – accept it when it happens, which is quite an interesting challenge."
Others at the World Cup are happy with the psychologist label. Wales's players are using Andy McCann, with whom the 22-year-old captain Sam Warburton has a 15-minute session on the morning of every match, visualising certain plays. Gilbert Enoka had a similar role with the All Blacks during the 2007 World Cup, and he is thought to be back again as a sounding board to surely the most pressurised rugby players on the planet.
What they all know – Alred included – is that success is never guaranteed. A case study: Flood lined up a penalty for England in the Grand Slam match in Ireland last March. The Irish led 9-0, with 26 minutes gone, and the kick was inside the 22. The TV commentator Brian Moore spoke for every lay person's train of thought: "A very kickable opportunity and he needs to make it." With a shuffling skip to start his run, Flood struck the ball and watched it immediately trace a curve wide of the target. He was left glaring momentarily at the patch of turf where – as he had practised hundreds of times with Alred – his kicking foot (the right) had landed before his non-kicking foot.
So does Alred analyse a failure, like Flood's in Dublin, with the player afterwards? "No, no, absolutely not. When you coach people, you encourage the behaviour you want. If you highlight mistakes, you're just going to get more mistakes. I would rather just say, OK, what happened, it got away from me, fine, my non-kicking foot slipped, let's move on. You can pillory people and all the rest of it but the bottom line is you'll never get that kick back, so why worry about it?"
Flood's club coach, Richard Cockerill of Leicester, criticised England, and by implication Alred, for what he said was Flood's reduced accuracy rate for the Tigers after last autumn; Cockerill even suggested Flood had developed a groin injury from a change in kicking style.
Alred refuses to answer the Leicester charge but he describes the key alteration to Flood's technique since summer 2010 thus: "It's the same change that Jonny did when he was recovering from his injury and that is to develop a technique that limits the hyperextension pressure that's on the knee. You land first on the kicking foot and you allow the pillar shift [the pillar runs from the neck to the crotch] to be the primary aiming source and power source. That is the way to kick to stop aggravating knee problems.
"I don't think Toby's looked back in terms of his consistency and also when he doesn't quite get it right, because of the technique he's developed, the ball still goes over. It's like golf. If you're always dwelling on a bad shot then you're going to be in trouble. You have to expect the next shot's going to be great, the next kick will be fine – that's all that matters. If you haven't got that mindset you won't even get on the pitch."