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'Brutal practice session at Harrington's home really helped Sexton'

The laughter shoots out of Dave Alred like steam from a kettle when asked to identify the specific gift that he imparts to his clients.

Described by Jonny Wilkinson as "the best kicking coach in the world", Alred is also considered to have been a major influence in golfer Luke Donald's rise to world No 1 in 2011, as well as being renowned for his work with a number of professional cricketers and Premier League footballers.

Two of his biggest projects today are Jonny Sexton and Padraig Harrington, yet the Englishman struggles to rope down a description that captures precisely what it is he does. "I don't know," he smiles.

"People keep asking me that. Simplistically, I would say I just make people better."

We meet at St Mary's RFC on Templeville Road, a session just completed with Sexton, for whom he has been a key figure since the Dubliner became Leinster's pivot en route to the first of their three Heineken Cup victories.

ferocity

Sexton is now considered one of the finest goal-kickers in world rugby and, if Harrington's current form suggests a need for more (or maybe less) fine-tuning, Alred believes that the two Irishmen are united by a common ferocity of will.

He recalls bringing Sexton with him to what he describes as a particularly "brutal" practice session with Harrington at the golfer's home in Shankill early last year.

"I think that really helped with Jonny, coming to watch me work with Padraig," he says. "Because he actually saw the guy who's won three Majors going through what we term 'the ugly zone', with all the angst and frustration of not quite getting something right.

"It was a brutal practice that he was doing at his house and that was great. It was also good that Padraig came along and watched a Leinster kicking session as well. The three of us have had these general discussions and it suddenly shows that everybody, whether you're a Wilkinson or not, the feelings and the emotions and the challenges are no different. It's the skill of managing it."

Alred insists that his contribution to sports professionals has a holistic dimension that covers both the mechanical and psychological.

Crossing between sports as diverse as rugby and golf seems, to him, a perfectly natural process. "Actually a goal-kick is an upside down golf swing," he smiles.

Alred was kicking coach to England for the 2003 World Cup, an experience you imagine must have fed a tumult of emotions when Wilkinson kicked that famous winning drop-goal in the final against Australia. That, however, is not quite how he recalls it.

"When it was over and we'd won it, got the medals and were walking around the stadium, I know it sounds strange, but it was actually quite flat," he remembers. "I certainly felt quite flat. The '03 World Cup was massive, but everything was about the journey.

"And sadly, when we'd got to that and won it, what was frustrating was ... I remember meeting again as the England coaching team in January and we analysed what we'd done and we all agreed, 'Gee, we could get better at this...' But the situation with the union at that time didn't allow us to kick on."

His relationship with Wilkinson is, he argues, nothing like the rigidly mechanical regime so many seem to imagine to be a fundamental of the Toulon out-half's approach to his rugby.

"Practice should be fun," he stresses. "People might find this very hard to believe but often I have had cramp in goal-kicking sessions with Wilkinson, from laughing. The image out there of Jonny is nowhere near reality. We have been almost rolling on the floor laughing when recounting certain situations in either a film or something that we've seen that is funny, then taking it to an obscure place.

"The latest is trying to recount Marty Feldman's long cricket run-up (silent comedy sketch). Without that release – and it's often within a session that might be two days before an international – people do not see that side, but it's absolutely vital. Trust me, Jonny Wilkinson is far from the one-dimensional person some seem to imagine."

Alred describes Joe Schmidt as being "fantastically supportive" of his work with Sexton, endlessly taking the time to seek updates on his out-half's readiness for battle.

"When I was with England, Martin Johnson was very good at that too, as was Clive Woodward," he says. "They'd always be checking on what kind of space the goal-kickers were in because they had a real understanding of how difficult that job is. A guy can miss a tackle and somebody else will get one in. But goal-kicking can be a lonely place, so you need that mental toughness.

"My work is a bit like peeling an onion in that regard. When you work over a period of time with somebody, eventually you get to the cold steel that's within – or that you hope is within. All I can say is that all the guys I'm working with at the moment have that steel. They all have that determination that they're going to get things right."

And Harrington? How far back is he from becoming a Major winner again?

"Well he was just inside the top-100 and now he's just inside the top-60," says Alred. "Golf, as I am finding, is a very, very evil game. You don't have to be much off before you're way off. I was with Padraig for the Texas Open prior to Augusta and I'm working with him again in the next couple of weeks.

power

"I think by some of the practices that he's been able to produce and with his work ethic and, now, the power that he's gained from fantastic work with Liam Hennessy, I would hope that it would now be just a matter of time.

"You know, I'm surprised when it doesn't happen for Padraig."

On Alred's last visit to work with Wilkinson in Toulon, he says that they spent the first three days of their week together just kicking the ball at a chain-link fence. Their focus, he insists, was on the process, not the outcome.

"I'm more interested in the quality of the strike and the line of flight," he says. "Once you put a goal in the way, people don't commit themselves to the process, because they're more interested in, 'Did it go over or not?' But the ball can go between the posts and it's not necessarily a good kick."

He is unsure whether or not his work with Sexton will continue beyond this summer, with the Leinster man likely to be the Lions' Test out-half in Australia before beginning a new career with Racing Metro in Paris.

"I suspect Jonny would like us to continue," he says. "Unlike a golfer, though, who has absolute control as the employer, there's a third party who must make that decision. But we'll see."

Irish Independent