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'The boundaries are limitless' - Irishman Kingsley finds his kicking calling

The Portlaoise man is skills and kicking coach with the Dragons.

THE OBSESSION WITH kicking started out in the back garden in Portlaoise, where Alan Kingsley remembers pretending to be Eric Elwood as he connected with the ball. 

He devoured any footage of Jonny Wilkinson, Ronan O’Gara and David Humphreys kicking that he could find.

Kingsley went on to excel with his hometown club, as well as Garryowen and Young Munster in the AIL, and it was always the kicking he enjoyed most.

Now the skills and kicking coach with the Dragons in the Pro14, Kingsley says he “fell into” pursuing it as a professional career, but he is deeply passionate about his work. 

alan-kingsley Kingsley played played with Portlaoise, Garryowen, and Young Munster. Source: James Crombie

Mention the new 50:22 kicking law trials and his enthusiasm comes to the fore. Speaking on the phone from lockdown in Wales, where the Dragons are on furlough, Kingsley audibly delights in Anthony Bouthier’s astounding spiral kick from this year’s Six Nations.

While most professional rugby coaches dream of being the boss, the person making the big decisions on selection, contracting, and overall strategy on the pitch, Kingsley has a narrower focus.

“At the moment, I have no interest in being a head coach, or even a backs or attack coach,” he says. “I really like the kicking and skills job.

“I am aware that it boxes you off into a small market but this is what I want to do.”

Kingsley showed his ability as a head coach in Ireland, impressing in his five years in charge of Navan, guiding them to back-to-back promotions from Division 2C of the AIL up into 2A before joining the Dragons in 2018.

Bernard Jackman – who Kingsley first met in Grenoble when he was invited over by fellow Young Munster man Mike Prendergast – brought Kingsley into the professional game, the pair of them having regularly shared ideas since that first meeting in France.

“He’s been really good to me,” says Kingsley of Jackman.

Dean Ryan was Jackman’s successor last year and Kingsley was enthused by his first few meetings with the Englishman.

“Dean saw good value in the kicking and he said that in all the teams he has coached so far, he’s never really had an attacking kicking game to back up his plan, so he was quite excited to have someone to look specifically at kicking, technically and tactically.”

Kingsley first formally coached kicking when he was in Australia, having left Young Munster and moved Down Under in 2011.

Western Force kicking coach Andrew Scotney spotted Kingsley’s talent with the boot when he was playing for the University of Western Australia, inviting him into the Force and handing him responsibility for the academy kicking, which Kingsley worked around his day job in Perth.

Things “snowballed from there” and the chance with Navan brought him home in 2013. Kingsley says he learned vital lessons at the Meath club with regards to building relationships with players and working with different personality types.

He got involved with the Leinster underage set-ups as a kicking specialist in the years that followed, learning from the “very open” Ireland kicking coach Richie Murphy as he went.

river Kingsley has been with the Dragons since 2018. Source: Dragons

Now, almost two years into his time in Wales, Kingsley’s role was a busy one before lockdown as he blended his kicking focus into the Dragons’ training weeks – with slots during squad sessions and lots of extras before and after.

The fact that the Welsh region employ a kicking expert like Kingsley says it all about how this side of the game has become so important.

“You only have to look at the stats in recent years and kicking has gone through the roof,”  says Kingsley. “It’s a wide variety of kicking now, it has gone from the days where only the nine or 10 kicked.

“You’ve got wingers putting in kicks on an edge, a lot of teams would have that ambition to move the ball wide and open up options in the backfield. It’s about being creative with your kicking game and trying to catch people out.

“You need a variety of kickers across the field. If you look at England, there’s Youngs at nine, then you’ve got Ford and Farrell, who are two really good right-footed kickers, then you might have Slade and Daly, who are left footers.

“The more kickers you have across the pitch, it definitely leads to an attacking advantage because space has to open up somewhere.”

Kingsley obviously works closely with the Dragons’ place-kickers and explains that he doesn’t impose any one ‘perfect’ technical model on them.

“It’s a very individualised skill, there’s not one rule for everyone. You have to work to an individual’s strengths and weaknesses, you’re trying to guide fellas. For me, I learned from my own mistakes, there’s a lot of feel and visualisation.

“You’re giving lads pointers, things to try, rather than a massive list of exact steps. There are obviously five or six key factors you’re looking for but it’s more about guidance and letting them find out themselves.”

The attacking kicking from hand is a huge part of his role, and not just technically.

Kingsley spends lots of his time studying footage of opposition defences, noting where the kick space might be, what way they set up their backfield in their own half, as well as closer to their tryline, where they close up fast, where they hang back, or when they get tight and might be beaten by cross-field kicks.

“That’s the office part of his job, trying to identify the opportunities and make the players aware of what it’s going to look like in the backfield. That can be a massive tool in the heat of the moment.”

france-v-england-guinness-six-nations-stade-de-france England have real variety in their kicking game. Source: David Davies

Admiring England’s variety of kickers as he does, Kingsley works with players right across the Dragons backline and pushes them to practice kicking off both feet. He sees scope for all players in the game – forwards included – to improve their kicking. 

“The boundaries are limitless really. You saw George Kruis kicking in the Six Nations, he had a kicked blocked down against Ireland but it was perfectly on, the kick space was there. It’s obviously something England are hammering home. A second row willing to put boot to ball, it has changed.”

His analysis work also focuses on how the opposition set-up to deal with restarts and Kingsley enjoys strategically attempting to figure out how the Dragons might exploit the opposition in this vital area of the game.

“It’s huge and everything comes back to the quality of the kick. Go back to the England-Ireland game this year and watch the kick-off. Farrell puts the ball on the 22, over the five-metre line, with a massive chase.

“Ireland are minced at the breakdown and England trap them in that corner, where it’s really hard to get out of. The second restart, it finds nearly exactly the same space even though Ireland had reacted.

“That ability to put the ball on a sixpence with guys going hard to win the ball back, it’s huge.”

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There’s work on exit kicks and line-kicking to find touch with penalties, while box-kicking is a major tool for the region’s scrum-halves. Kingsley outlines how the place-kickers also end every session with drop goals. 

Sam Davies’ last-gasp drop goal to beat the Scarlets in December has been their only one of the season in a game, but Kingsley wants his players prepared for other any other opportunities.

Every kicking obsessive is enthralled with the 50:22 law trial at present, hoping this shift in the game – which looks set to continue in more prominent competitions in the future – will bring the spiral kick firmly back into fashion. 

Kingsley has been keeping an eye on the trials so far, noting how last year’s National Rugby Championship in Australia had only 14 examples of 50:22 kicks, with three of those instances leading to tries from the resulting attacking lineout. 

Even in recent weeks, Kingsley finds himself reviewing games and spotting moments where 50:22 kicks would have worked.

He is fascinated by the possibilities. The prospect of defending teams having fewer players in the frontline is obvious, potentially meaning more space to run into, but Kingsley can see other opportunities too.

“If teams are worried about the 50:22 kick, that could also create space down the middle of the pitch. I think it’s a kick that is being used quite a bit at the moment, leaving the ball underneath an opponent’s goalposts five or 10 metres out, that means it’s 35 metres to the closest sideline for them without putting any distance on it.

1568902064_ge1x3384 Kingsley first coached kicking in Australia. Source: Dragons

“It’s really going to be interesting to see how the backfield changes. It’s going to create space somewhere on the field.

“I think we’ll see a lot more teams being aware around the halfway line and setting up midfield rucks where you have kicking options on both sides – so having those multiple kickers across the pitch will be very dangerous.”

The excitement is obvious and Kingsley is clearly a man who has found his calling.

He’s enjoying his work with the Dragons and had discussed extending his contract into next season before the lockdown struck, with his family well settled in Wales. His wife, Rosie, works for the NHS and their sons, Scott and Bobby are happy there.

Kingsley has an eye on the future too and would love an opportunity to coach kicking at international level at some stage.

There aren’t many in his line of work within rugby. Dave Alred is the original master, while Vlok Cilliers, a South African who helped to transform France’s kicking game this year, is another example.

Becoming a kicking consultant is one potential route for Kingsley in the years ahead, working with a handful of clubs across Europe, analysing their kicking games and then visiting each of them for two or three days at a time.

Whatever happens next, Kingsley is ready to kick on.

– First published 08.30, 26 April

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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