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Why the Wallabies will be kicking themselves in 2019

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Expert
23rd April, 2019
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Dave Alred must be watching the developments in Australian rugby with hawkish interest from the perch in his new Ballymore roost. Alred is currently part of the Queensland Reds coaching group, entrusted with the improvement of the club’s kicking game.

He performed the same role for England’s World Cup-winning team in 2003, a victory built largely on the back of world-leading coaching in the fields of defence and kicking. Much of the stimulus for the side’s improvement derived from coaches arriving from different contact sports.

Defence coach Phil Larder came from rugby league and Alred’s background was as a kicker for the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings. In reality he was, and is, far more than merely a kicking coach. His expertise in the area of high-performance is such that it has been cross-fertilised to top golfers like Padraig Harrington and Luke Donald.

Dave Alred completed his PhD on biomechanics in baseball, where he found that the best home-run hitters had a habit of making impact with the ball opposite their own centre of gravity.

As a coach, he looked at ways of translating that knowledge into the kicking of a rugby ball and the swinging of a golf club:

“I looked to find a way to remain centred and push that centred mass towards the ball, so that all of your body is kicking the ball, or swinging the club. It just happens to be the foot, or the head of the club, that makes contact.

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“The process involves creating a specific awareness of the power in the core, then directing that power mentally through your kicking foot… When Jonny Wilkinson clenches his hands together, he is consolidating the power in his ‘pillar’ [core], then he transfers that power to his kicking foot while remaining as strong and stable as possible.

“You don’t need to look at the posts after the kick has been launched when you’re in that cocoon of concentration, the crowd will tell you all you need to know.”

Kicking was the primary feature of the showdown between the New South Wales Waratahs and the Melbourne Rebels at the Sydney Cricket Ground on Saturday evening.

Bernard Foley

(Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

The ball was kicked 65 times out of hand by the six main kickers – a highly un-Australian statistic which probably represents the urgent ‘catch-up’ attitude of Australian rugby in this area of the game.

The main kickers on either side were at halfback, flyhalf and fullback.

Kicker Number of kicks Success rate (%)
Will Genia 10 45
Quade Cooper 10 55
Reece Hodge 9 78
Jake Gordon 4 50
Bernard Foley 22 52
Kurtley Beale 10 50

Two statistics jump out from the raw material. By far the biggest kicking burden was borne by Bernard Foley for the Waratahs, but the results he returned were average.

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Although he only kicked the ball nine times for the Rebels, and mostly on exit plays, Reece Hodge produced the majority of the high-quality kicks in the game.

It is worth investigating the technical and tactical aspects of the kicking in the match through Dave Alred’s ‘eyes’ – in other words, using his set of principles to guide us.

Firstly, let’s take a look at Hodge’s excellence from the back. One of the first ‘tennis duels’ in the game announced his dominance:

Bernard Foley kicks long to the Rebels 22, but with a limited backswing, Hodge has the muzzle velocity to outkick him and send the NSW outside half and Kurtley Beale scurrying back to their own goalline. Beale has to find touch on the Tahs own 40m line with a Rebels’ throw to the lineout. That represented a big win for the Melbourne fullback.

Hodge repeated the dose in the tenth minute of the game, out-kicking Beale from the fringe of his own 22 and forcing a Rebels’ lineout throw inside the Waratah half of the field:

Even from positions deep inside his own in-goal area, Hodge was able to cover 55 metres or more through the air and find touch beyond the 40m line, creating invaluable breathing space for the Rebels defence:

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The issues which can occur with Hodge’s exits are connected more with exit organisation and timing, rather than a fault in his own kicking technique. He had one exit kick blocked down by Jed Holloway:

Will Genia picks the wrong play to make the pass, because Holloway already has momentum off the line. Just two or three metres of go-forward plus a quick delivery from the ruck are enough to destroy such momentum, so the exit sequence could have continued for another phase or two until the right moment presented itself.

There is little wrong with Hodge’s technique in itself, however:

reece hodge kicking technique

The head is still and above the ball, and the body is driving through it at the point of contact, carrying the kicker forward after the kick has been made.

The story with the fixture’s most prolific kicker, Bernard Foley, was mixed. Foley missed touch from two penalties early in the game, the second which should have resulted in a prime five-metre lineout position for the Tahs:

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At the moment of contact, Foley is sitting back on the ball and there is no body-momentum through contact whatsoever:

bernard foley kicking analysis

Now compare Foley’s actions with Dave Alred’s advice to a young kicker in this short video session:

Alred’s comment is as apt for Foley’s missed touch-finder as it is for the young kicker learning his trade:

“All the weight in your body quits, nothing transfers to the ball and it’s all leg. Many kickers tend to quit the body and let the leg take over, and then you get all sorts of scattered results.”

Foley can do it, as he proved early in the second half, it is just that the application of correct technique is inconsistent:

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In this instance, Foley is able to let his body participate in the action of kicking and follow through after the ball has been released. The result is perfect.

Both sides scored tries built off the repossession of high contestable kicks. First, New South Wales targeted Quade Cooper on the far side of the Melbourne backfield:

Foley’s pinpoint kick resulted in the first try for New South Wales on the very next phase:

Then the Rebels retaliated with a box kick by Genia followed by a run by Reece Hodge on the next play (at 1:55 on the reel). In both instances, the break was engineered against a defence still in the process of regrouping after a lost high ball.

Dave Alred was the innovator behind the development of the cross-kick as an attacking weapon around 2002. Alred delivered the essential technical information to England’s two main outside-halves of the era, Wilkinson and Paul Grayson, but the inspiration was the forward pass in American football. The ‘pass’ was delivered off the foot but had the feel of a long cut-out ball thrown by hand.

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Kurtley Beale’s effort in the 68th minute showed that Australia still has something to learn about both the technical and the tactical aspects of the cross-kick:

The kick by Beale is too long. It gives Adam Ashley-Cooper too little room to beat Will Genia on the sideline, even if he wins the ball. It has the effect of facing Genia out towards touch, and pulling him into a natural position to make the tackle even if he cannot make the catch:

kurtley beale kicking analysis

The kick needed to be directed closer to the 15m line, where Ashley-Cooper could run a ‘J-shape’, from out-to-in onto the ball, coming from Genia’s blindside. If the catch is made there, Genia will be facing away from the ball and in no position to make a defensive play on it.

Here’s another example of Bernard Foley breaching Dave Alred’s rules about kicking an egg-shaped ball:

After the kick, Foley actually runs away from the direction of the ball rather than pushing his body through on the same line. It is little wonder the results of the kicking game in Australian rugby are so scattered!

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Summary
I question whether Australian rugby realises the coaching gem it has unearthed in 2019 in the shape of the Reds kicking coach Dave Alred. Alred has just the expertise the Wallabies need in order to evolve their kicking game in double-quick time.

The ball was kicked 65 times in the match between the Waratahs and the Rebels, but not always that well. Among the six mainstream kickers used on either side, the most successful was Reece Hodge, and he did not kick as often as any of the Wallabies-in-waiting – Will Genia, Quade Cooper on the one side, Bernard Foley and Kurtley Beale on the other.

The basic technique of most of Australia’s major kickers is inconsistently applied, so maybe the future is Reece Hodge’s, whether he sticks at 15 or moves into 12. Or maybe it lies with Samu Kerevi, who is receiving the benefit of Alred’s advice at the Reds.

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Either way, the Wallabies will be kicking themselves down the road towards the World Cup in Japan. The only question is whether they will be bouncing from one kerb to the other, or driving straight down the middle of the highway.