The man behind Wilkinson's kicking
May 21, 2014
Dave Alred alongside Jonny Wilkinson in 2005 © Getty Images
Jonny Wilkinson has always cut a solitary figure, a man who lives for constant unrelenting improvement coming at the cost of an isolated existence. But while there are numerous photographs of Wilkinson practising on his own in inclement conditions while others shelter under the auspices of a stand, there have been some individuals who have helped develop and make Wilkinson the man he is today - a World Cup-winner and a fly-half who is the face of English rugby.
When Wilkinson first met performance coach Dave Alred, he was 16. "Originally he was the heir apparent to Rob Andrew at Newcastle," Alred told ESPN. "I could see that with his tenacity about wanting to get things right. As you achieve a particular standard and then the next thing you always build - so whatever you achieve you always want to improve an aspect of that. That just kept on going with Jonny."
For Wilkinson, meeting Alred was a Eureka moment. He rated himself as a seven or eight out of ten goal kicker, but then he saw Alred hit a perfect spiral kick down the Bristol rugby training field. "When I met Dave Alred, I thought I'm going to give this guy everything I've got," Wilkinson wrote in his eponymous autobiography Jonny. "Hold nothing back. If I'm going to get to where I want to go, I need him, and I need to drain every last bit of ability out of my being."
A friendship was formed that still lasts to this day. Throughout Wilkinson's 17-year career, Alred has been there, by his side, constantly tweaking aspects of his game. Other times it was a sounding board, on other occasions as a shoulder. For Alred, his time as a player took in spells at Bath and Bristol at fullback while spending a time playing American Football for the Minnesota Vikings. For Wilkinson, his Vikings experience has been his time at Toulon, a spell which re-vitalised him.
A young Wilkinson back in 1999 © Getty Images
But while Wilkinson's declaration of his impending retirement came on Monday, Alred was still in Toulon last week working on his kicking. When you listen to Alred speak, at times his message is like listening to Wilkinson, there is a feeling of restlessness.
"It's not a drive for perfection, it's striving to enjoy the fun of getting better. It's a continual process," Alred said. "In coaching it never stays still, whenever you achieve something, often when you've done it, you look back and look at how you could've done it better. But you have to have done it first before you can look back on it. It's easy for some people to sit and pontificate and ask why you couldn't have got it right the first time but I think those people tend to be a bit naive and don't really understand coaching."
Whether Wilkinson ever finds that feeling of contentment following the last two games of the season, only he will know. For Alred, despite everything Wilkinson has achieved in the sport, there will also be those feelings of slightly tainted glory when it came to his career. "I'm not sure satisfaction is the right word. It was a great experience but if I could do it all again, I'd do it differently - just the way we approached different things, the order in which we developed particular types of kicks, the attitude to practise.
"If you took a snapshot of what we did last week in Toulon compared to what we used to do in 1999 prior to the World Cup, it's absolutely chalk and cheese - whether that's routines, emphasis or developing kicks as a means to an end rather than just repeating the kicks you will do in a game."
It has been a remarkable journey for the pair of them. Such was the young Wilkinson's desire for success, Alred used to drive his car on to the Bristol training field to use its headlamps to help Wilkinson train when sunlight gave out. There were other times when Alred had to watch on as Wilkinson hit kick after kick until he felt happy enough to go home and rest.
Alongside the glory of 2003 where Alred was part of the England backroom staff, there have been times when Wilkinson needed careful management such as in the aftermath of his horrendous knee injury in 2008, something he suffered after just four games back following shoulder surgery in the wake of the 2007 World Cup.
"I look at particular turning points. One was in 2001 when I introduced centering [a process Alred brought to goal-kicking which takes inspiration from baseball and judo - it has also been used in Alred's work with golfer Luke Donald] to goal kicking and the power application. We were the first ones to look at pillar-power and the kicks coming from the body and not the leg.
"And the other would be after that horrendous knee injury, the dislocation at Gloucester, where he hobbled back and we completely changed everything we did in kicking so that he didn't hyper-extend and that change is still going on."
You can imagine the energy Wilkinson has channelled into playing will have to find another outlet. He will be involved in Toulon's backroom staff next season but Alred feels it is time Wilkinson just exhaled.
At the captain's run before the 2003 World Cup final © Getty Images
"I think his body needs a break. For the first six months or so, he should get used to not playing and look after his body. He should get some proper rehab, that's vitally important for his long-term health. The appointment in Toulon will be great, once that's all done."
His role at Toulon will see him take on responsibility for skills and kicking, but Alred feels Wilkinson is worth more than that. He needs to be involved with the bigger picture.
"He has an enthusiasm to be a good coach but I think a kicking coach would be a waste. He's got a lot more to offer than just that.
"But I wouldn't look at how he played as an indication of how he will coach. One of the biggest mistakes that a lot of the coaches make is that they coach people to play how they played. I did the same thing, I made that mistake but you then find mismatches.
"You're much better at looking at what players are capable of and looking at their idiosyncrasies and looking at how they get better. You have to understand principles and all the rest of it. And he does understand that and he understands the game so therefore I think he will be much better at that."
When Wilkinson kicks his final ball in anger on May 31 for Toulon, you imagine there will be a sense of loss within his life. The day-to-day routine of practising his kicking and all the mental preparation that has taken in aspects of a Japanese philosophy named Kaizen will need a new outlet. That is another hurdle for Wilkinson to overcome. The sport will also lose one of its most recognisable players, an individual who gave body and mind to rugby.
The notion of greatness is a purely subjective thing. When you weigh up Wilkinson's standing in the pantheon of rugby greats, they will look to his incredible Test record, his World Cup medal. For Alred, he will continue working away with sportsmen and women trying to tap into unearthed potential though he is uncertain whether he will ever work with anyone quite like Wilkinson ever again.
"That's a difficult one. I think George Ford has got qualities that are similar to Jonny's. He's got a mindset. I don't know, I think everyone's different. He achieves absolute greatness but that is him. Other people can achieve greatness without being the same as him, the skill to coaching is to work out how to maximise their potential, whoever they are."
Alred is unsure if Wilkinson will continue practising his kicking even after officially calling time on his professional career, but regardless of which path Wilkinson's career takes in the future, you imagine Alred will be keeping a close eye on his development.
"We're just both obsessed with how we can get better at what we do. He's somebody who is honest, has integrity and is hard working. He's got a great work ethic and is a true gentleman."
© Getty Images
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Tom Hamilton is the Associate Editor of ESPNscrum.