Kicking king Alred keeping the pressure on Sexton to succeed
‘Let’s say I was working for Ireland now and they were playing England. I’d want Ireland to win for everyone in the group’
Ireland outhalf Johnny Sexton kicks a penalty in the Six Nations game against England at the Aviva stadium in February 2019. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Sitting in the corner of a pub on the outskirts of Taunton is the man whose unseen work could shape the upcoming World Cup. Without him Jonny Wilkinson might also not have kicked England to glory in 2003 and numerous other athletes in other sports would still be underachieving. The 2018 British Open champion, Francesco Molinari, is just the latest to have profited from the most versatile swing doctor in the business.
Now into his 70s but still mahogany tanned and eagle of eye, Dave Alred effectively has a foot in Ireland’s camp these days. Over several years England’s former kicking guru has helped to turn the presently injured Johnny Sexton into one of the game’s most reliable kickers. So how will he feel if Sexton has a penalty or a conversion attempt to beat England in the last moments of the 2019 final in Yokohama? “If Sexton’s got a kick to win it, I hope he kicks it,” Alred says.
Should it happen, the English Rugby Football Union can hardly protest. It has not seen fit to hire Alred for almost eight years, despite his extraordinary CV. While he has been assisting George Ford on a private basis – the recent improvement in Ford’s kicking repertoire is there for all to see – no one at Twickenham has invited him to mentor the next generation. Great news for Molinari but not, necessarily, for England’s future kicking prospects.
Then again, Alred drifted out of love with the RFU hierarchy some time ago. “When I first got involved with England, if you’d cut my arm off there would have been a rose inside there. Sadly the rose isn’t there any more,” he says. “It went in 2004 when things changed at the RFU and they started to say ‘no’ to everything we were suggesting. Let’s say I was working for Ireland now and they were playing England. I’d want Ireland to win for everyone in the group.”
Only when Martin Johnson invited him back before the 2011 World Cup did Alred relent, albeit briefly. “In 2011 I felt I was working for the players, I wasn’t working for England. You know that when it suits someone you’re gone.” Is he surprised the RFU has not subsequently reconsidered? “If they can discard Martin Johnson, who is a much bigger person than me in the world of rugby, why should I be surprised? I still think Martin is a massive sad loss to the game.”
Instead Alred has headed in other directions, teaching skill execution and, increasingly, pressure management worldwide. In addition to his golfing commitments, he helps to coach the Queensland Reds, the Brisbane Lions AFL squad and even modern pentathletes. Along with his son, Stuart, and Exeter’s former goalkicking ace Tony Yapp, he has also established the School of Kicking, offering tutorials and digital masterclasses to anyone wishing to bisect a set of posts more consistently.
So when Alred suggests most of the world’s leading teams are not investing sufficiently in their kicking games he knows what he is talking about.
“We’re breeding a lot of physical robots who want to smash the wall down. The strength and conditioning guys have got them by the nuts, basically. There are massive kicking improvements to be made at international level. Currently the players are either exhausted or too sore and just get the basics done. I really do believe the power now is with S&C, because you can measure it. Aussie Rules is the same. If you look at their stats goalkicking has not improved in the last 10 years. Yet their running and fitness is unbelievable.”
The forthcoming World Cup, he reckons, will further underscore his thesis. “The side with the best, most varied kicking game is likely to win the World Cup. If you have a team that’s only going to kick from 9 and 10 that is eminently predictable. The safe coaching option is big, hard people who can bust tackles. It’s not going to be enough at this World Cup.”
He backs up his argument with the ultimate case study. “In 2003 England won the World Cup and everyone still raves about Jonny Wilkinson’s drop-goal with his wrong foot. But if you go back and have a look, who kicked us down into the corner? Mike Tindall. He wasn’t a recognised kicker but for 18 months beforehand in training he’d kicked every day.”
Alred, consequently, is entirely in favour of an English 10-12 axis of Ford and Owen Farrell and reckons kicking could cost the All Blacks – “I think they could still improve quite dramatically” – in Japan.
He stresses even so, that New Zealand continue to have a more enlightened coaching culture than many nations. “I feel like a voice in the wilderness at the moment. Most people video people’s mistakes and say: ‘We need to do this’. How about showing them what they did right? Across sport and life the threat of failure is much bigger than the joy of achievement. I’m trying to reverse that.”
Abandoning his comfort zone has worked spectacularly for Molinari, after Alred persuaded the Italian to take more specific aim at the pin rather than the safety of the green, offering more birdie chances and, consequently, more tournament wins.
Sexton has also received more pressure-specific tuition than Alred used in his earlier days with Wilkinson, Rob Andrew and Stuart Barnes. “If I had my time again I’d do things massively differently. I’ve learnt to accelerate the learning and be prepared to push them more: to take them into an ugly place and be comfortable with that.”
Obsessed? The former Minnesota Vikings kicker says those who use that word don’t fully understand commitment. Intriguingly he cites Paul Grayson as “the most underrated kicker” he has ever worked with and, for pure ball-striking, also rates Ireland’s erstwhile flyhalf Paddy Jackson. Then there is the spiral kick, virtually extinct since professionalism dawned. If the proposed 50:22 law trial is approved, the lost art of the torpedo punt could be swiftly back in vogue. In short, anyone confident enough to boot fear into touch will benefit as and when rugby takes its next tactical leap. - Guardian
So would someone like Molinari make a decent place-kicker? “He’d have the right mentality but I’m not sure he’d be attracted by the wages. It’d be too big a pay cut.” Alred is still worth listening to, as this World Cup could underline.