Dave Alred stresses lack of kicking basics in rugby

Dave Alred’s schedule reflects his standing in the world of coaching.
Dave Alred stresses lack of kicking basics in rugby

The Bristol-based coach, who was voted among the world’s top five practitioners, flew from Australia to Ireland for the weekend, only to head back Down Under, via Portugal.

Even his goal when not lecturing at Setanta College’s coaching conference in Thurles was to find the ‘Tipperary: You’ve come a long way’ sign to prove that very fact.

He has crossed codes too, bringing his experience as a kicking coach in rugby to soccer and Aussie Rules, and then crossing into cricket and golf for good measure.

Still, rugby remains central in Alred’s work and he trained kickers involved with numerous countries at last month’s Rugby World Cup, including Ireland’s Paddy Jackson and Jonny Sexton, although he passionately believes only educating out-halves in kicking isn’t enough.

The basics of kicking and catching are 35% of the modern game, according to Alred, and he rails against the use of prototype players who bring specific, but limited skillsets to their designated position.

Alred’s greatest success and career-making moment came when Jonny Wilkinson drop-goaled the Webb Ellis Cup for England in 2003 but, despite the fame of that achievement, he reflects on other moments when returning to those days.

He recalls, for example, passing on Aussie Rules style catching techniques to England and helping to add crucial kicking options, aside from the obvious, to their armoury.

“At the World Cup final in 2003, one of the pivotal points in that game was a kick by Mike Tindall to get possession,” says Alred. “That’s because when Wilkinson was kicking the back-three all stayed back and that’s the behaviour of the team when the outside-half is the sole kicker. You look at Toulon, you’d (Matt) Giteau and Wilkinson, so a kicking option in the centre is crucial.

“The problem you have is either the coaches get a hard-running centre – bash, bash, bash – and they decide that that person is incapable of learning to kick, or you end up with a kicker who can’t take the ball up.

“I don’t accept that because what you’re actually doing is putting limits on both sorts of players and I think anybody who commits can learn to kick. If you look at Jason Robinson when he came from Rugby League, he couldn’t kick, he never kicked, and yet, by the time we got to the World Cup, he was a competent kicker. It can be done.”

Even the best kickers can never limit themselves by thinking they have reached ten out of ten status. Sexton, for one, admitted his regret at not practising with his weaker foot until Alred came on board and instilled him with that belief. Putting himself in that position of discomfort – or, in Alred’s words, ‘ugly zone’ – should help instil wider benefits for his rugby brain and aid his ability to react to any situation a game may produce.

“I find the continual learning model is something people talk about but don’t actually employ: ‘Oh, we don’t want to do anything different because it’s test week’. Then the brain suddenly drops back in that comfort zone and the game is not that, it’s not predictable.

“You need to have a brain that’s on edge, and seeing things, and looking for opportunities as a starting point. That comes from continually learning something new and continually getting in that ugly zone, even in test week.”

The ugly zone is a problem for coaches too. Too many see coaching as a matter of control, when Alred believes losing some of that control could better educate players for real in-game situations.

“It isn’t difficult to recreate (that randomness in training) as long as you’re willing to accept chaos. I just think sometimes there is a culture of coaching that actually is about control and order, which is diametrically opposed to what the game is and that usually results in predictable, measured patterns, but that’s not winning. If you look at the way the All Blacks play, there were patterns but it wasn’t predictable. They had second rows out on the wing. They had props catching crossfield kicks. From 1 to 15 they peaked brilliantly. At that level it’s those little tiny margins that make so much difference. But you always felt there was a capability within that side they could always produce something.”

When you look at his list of clients, among them Sexton, Wilkinson and George Ford in rugby, Pádraig Harrington and Luke Donald in golf, you feel the training sessions must be intense, high- pressured affairs.

In fact Alred literally has a PhD in Performing under Pressure from Loughborough University and is committing his ‘Pressure Principles’ to book form.

However he likes to bring a sense of celebration to those practices instead, preferring to focus on the positives than dwell on missteps.

“I’ve been in situations where I’ve personally stopped a session to get them to reflect on how well they’ve done, where they’ve come from and how much improvement they’ve achieved since we last did it.

“Sometimes the athlete can’t see when they’re cocooned in their own environment and it’s just refreshing for someone to take them out of that.”

It’s the attitude of a man who invented FIG Golf – or Fuck, I’m Good Golf – with Luke Donald and is now trying to find the right balance in Pádraig Harrington’s evolution.

“I like working with him. He’s got so much effort and commitment to it – no stone unturned and all the rest of it. The only thing I would say, and he would say the same, is amongst all of that, sometimes less is more and it’s very difficult to know where that line is.

“That’s where coaching is an art form and not a science. There is still the eye and the gut feel.”

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