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'You're naive if you think you can win without kicking well. Often, kicking decides games'

Dave Alred helped England to the World Cup in 2003 and remains obsessed with kicking.

Dave Alred worked with Johnny Wilkinson when England won the World Cup.
Dave Alred worked with Johnny Wilkinson when England won the World Cup.

A SMILE SPREADS across Dave Alred’s face as soon as that Stuart Hogg spiral kick comes up.

Alred, the world-renowned kicking guru who helped Jonny Wilkinson to become one of the best and who still coaches the likes of Johnny Sexton, Beauden Barrett, and George Ford, was watching on from Australia where he now works with the Queensland Reds.

“I loved it,” says Alred of Hogg’s sublime 70-metre spiral kick to touch for Scotland against England in the Six Nations.

Alred lives and breaths kicking. He delights in the detail of it all, whether from the tee or from hand, and feels it remains an undervalued part of the game in many quarters.

Mention of the Hogg kick sparks his enthusiasm, his body moving as he describes the Scotland captain’s technique.

“If you’re going to spiral kick, remember that this [the hip] is a ball-and-socket joint, not a hinge joint, so it will always curl a little bit,” explains Alred.

“The other thing is that you need to put the ball out – if you get it in front, you’re too cramped because you can’t use your hips. He just ever so slightly went offset, so that puts the shoulder forward and you’re now in a strong position because you’ve got a diagonal fascia.

“Then he unloaded and the unloading brought him back to square. He actually wasn’t facing the target.”

Alred, who also works with top golfers like Luke Donald and Francesco Molinari and who wrote the book ‘The Pressure Principle,’ says there is joy to be found in connecting with the ball like Hogg did at Twickenham that day.

“It’s a bit like in golf when people get onto the driving range and they hit a few balls, love seeing it flying, that great feeling off the club.”

rugby-union-rbs-6-nations-championship-2011-england-v-scotland-twickenham Alred helped Jonny Wilkinson build his famous kicking style. Source: EMPICS Sport

Indeed, Alred sometimes takes the Reds’ kickers out to the driving range to remind them of that feeling or help them to understand it in the first place.

He played for Bath and Bristol in the 1970s and then had a stint as a kicker with American football’s Minnesota Vikings. He was fascinated with kicking and, having added academic expertise to his own experiences, moved into the world of coaching with Bath and then England. Alred was a key part of Clive Woodward’s England project that led to World Cup success in 2003.

Though he has been in this game for decades now, Alred’s energy and passion for kicking haven’t diminished. His dialogue is full of mentions of ‘energy leak’, core, balance, control, centredness, acceleration.

He has always been keen to share that love of kicking with others and has given his name to the ‘Alred Trophy,’ which is labelled ‘a search for Great Britain and Ireland’s next best rugby kicker.’

The NFL Combine-style event is due to come to Ireland in April and is currently welcoming applicants under the age of 18, having linked with Rugby Academy Ireland and the UK-based School of Kicking. Young players will be tested on their power, accuracy and performance under pressure in place-kicking and kicking from hand.

Amidst Covid-19, Alred has enjoyed working online with a ‘Kickers Club‘, in which the “exchange of ideas” has helped many of the young players to improve their kicking skills even when rugby is on hold in most places.

“Our motto is ‘only kickers know,’” says Alred. “Only kickers understand that frustration of not quite getting it right, of hitting the ball pretty well but it’s just leaking. It’s another language and dimension.”

His experience is that young rugby players love kicking the ball when the skills are coached in a positive manner, and he believes the long-term effects can be huge all the way into the professional sport.

“People talk about ‘total rugby’ but what they actually mean is running everything and never kicking,” says Alred.

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“But in today’s game, with the quality of defences, you’re naive if you think you can win without kicking well. When there is parity in lots of areas, often it’s the kicking that decides games.”

Ed5kwnSUwAAgHzJ Alred works with kickers like Beauden Barrett. Source: Dave Alred/Twitter

Alred underlines the enduring importance of place-kicking in the game, while he also stresses that kicking from hand shouldn’t just be seen as a job for halfbacks.

“It’s not just having a Johnny Sexton who can kick – it’s having a 13 who can kick, a winger that can kick, a 15 that gives you a kicking option. As soon as the 10 passes the ball, there’s space in the backfield because the defence has to react.

“You can’t just have one kicker in the team, we need all seven backs to be able to kick.”

Alred flags the example of Brian O’Driscoll coming away from the 2001 Lions tour eager to get better at kicking, increasing his range of weapons as a result, while he says that forwards shouldn’t necessarily be excluded from working on their kicking.

“With Clive when we first got involved with England, we had all the back rows learning to kick. If a player goes off injured, they might have to end up moving into the backline maybe and also they are often covering back during the game.”

Alred questions the volume of ‘contestable kicks’ from some teams at the top level, highlighting how those situations now favour the defensive team given how the laws protect them in the air. 

He asks why teams don’t instead kick lower and harder to grass, forcing defenders to turn to gather the ball and then be faced with a strong chase.

That said, Alred has been working with the Reds and many of his clients on the ‘spiral bomb,’ which we have seen far more of in professional rugby in the last year or so.

“Those advantages going for the side receiving kicks, we want to pull that back a bit now,” he says. “But it’s tough – it’s a bit like Rory McIlroy using the driver, some sensational shots but some ending up in the trees. You live with that every now and again.”

rugby-union-lion-kicking-coaching-clinic Alred on the 1997 Lions tour of South Africa. Source: EMPICS Sport

In Australia, Alred has found that kicking is sometimes “seen as surrendering,” and he has had to work hard with many of the Reds’ players, whose “foot education was all over the place.”

The 50/22 kicking law trial is in place again for Super Rugby AU this year, but Alred says teams still haven’t grasped the possibilities yet.

“There’s a little bit of resistance probably because it just sounds like the 40/20 from rugby league. It’s a way of getting the opposition backs to be honest and cover the backfield instead of having everyone up in the defensive line. 

“You still have to be able to kick it and I don’t think teams have really used that law yet, it hasn’t been integrated yet. One team will eventually start doing it all the time and then everyone will have to drop their wingers back.”

With travel off the table for now, Alred has been keeping in touch with Sexton, Ford and other clients online, sending them sessions and giving them advice, but he looks forward to getting back on the move again whenever possible. 

Now into his 70s but still very fit, Alred will continue to share his love for high-quality kicking. 

“You can’t fix everybody with one set of instructions,” he says. “Everybody is different. Everybody has different experiences and backgrounds. Often you’re just putting seeds out to see which one gives us that eureka moment.”

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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