We talk all things kicking with Ulster’s Ian Humphreys, one of the stars of our exclusive Kick your way to the Grand Final competition.
Ian Humphreys is a man in form, both with ball in hand and with the boot.
With his instinctive attacking style and metronomic left foot, Humphreys continues to spearhead Ulster’s attack on the domestic and European front.
After his stunning last-gasp penalty against French giants Biarritz helped set up a first Heineken Cup quarter-final appearance in a decade, the 28-year-old’s focus has returned to guiding the Northern Irish province back up into the Magners League Play-Off places as the hunt for the top four really gathers pace.
But while Humphreys is fully focused on Sunday’s massive trip to reigning champions the Ospreys, he does admit that something else has caught his eye over the past few weeks – our Kick your way to the Grand Final comp.
Just by clicking here, we’re offering you the chance to experience a unique kicking session with top Magners League stars like Humphreys and the former Leicester fly-half is fully behind the concept.
"It’ll be a great competition for me to be involved in," said Humphreys, who is keen to pass on his advice in the hope that it will be an Ulster fan kicking for glory during the half-time break at the 2011 Grand Final.
"It would be brilliant for fans to be out in the Grand Final kicking in front of so many thousands of people. That would be a really good experience for anybody.
"I can remember when I was younger, I had a couple of kicking sessions with Simon Mason, who was a legendary kicker for Ulster. I remember how much I enjoyed those so, if fans come and kick with me through this competition, I’d be more than happy to help. It’ll be good trying to help people improve their kicking and I’ll be more than up for that."
Humphreys certainly has plenty of useful tips to pass on to those who win the chance to join him and Magners League Ambassador Stephen Ferris for a kicking session and behind the scenes tour of the Ulster facilities.
That advice is well-founded and comes from years of experience kicking with the likes of England’s Andy Goode and South Africa’s Ruan Pienaar, as well as former Lions tourist Dusty Hare and his own brother David.
For Humphreys, practice might not always make perfect but it certainly makes permanent. It’s that hard-working attitude that is key to his success in an area where repetition really is the best way to improve.
"It’s a case of making sure you’ve got a set routine," added Humphreys.
"It’s like a gofer’s swing – it doesn’t have to be the same for everybody, you just have to be able to repeat it time after time after time and when you’re under pressure. It’s a matter of repetition and getting your body used to what it’s meant to do.
"Our kicking practice here isn’t too structured. With the way our week goes now, we don’t really have a day off until the day off the day before the game, so we don’t usually have a massive kicking session then because it’s too close to the match.
"At the start of the season, we used to get a Wednesday off and Neil Doak, our kicking and backs coach, brought in a routine where we had to get 10 kicks straight in front of the posts from just short of the 10-metre line, then five left and five right.
"It sounds easy but it’s not. If you miss, you have to start again at the beginning of each section and you don’t leave until you get all of those. Some days it takes you 20 or 25 kicks but some days you can be there for 75-100 kicks.
"In the past we found that we were just kicking for the sake of kicking whereas when Doaky gives us a specific drill, it sharpens the mind and shows you how much concentration it takes for every single kick."
There are no smiles without plenty of hard graft
When Humphreys says ‘we’ he invariably means fellow Ulster kickers Pienaar and Niall O’Connor.
While goal kicking is usually seen as a lonely, solitary existence, Humphreys insists that practicing with team-mates is vital to his own progression.
"I think the key thing is to try and kick with somebody. When you kick on your own, you can still end up going through the motions regardless of how hard you try not to. That’s certainly my point of view, that I need to kick with somebody to get a really good session done.
"Even if it’s only 20 kicks after training, Ruan, Niall and I make it very competitive. It’s usually only for small things like coffees and muffins and silly things like that but it focuses your mind really well.
"I definitely think all three of us have noticed a vast improvement in our kicking this year because we’re not just going through the motions in practice any more – we’re really specific in what we’re doing and we’re reaping the rewards.
"We do give each other advice but it depends on who’s winning the competition! We’re all good friends so if you see something where somebody’s going wrong, you definitely tell them. Doaky’s there as well and he’ll point out a few bits and pieces.
"I certainly find now, because I’ve kicked for so many years, that if I’m missing I tend to know why so I can self correct. But Doaky’s definitely technically very good and really knows what he’s talking about.
"No one really knows how much hard work you put in. It’s only really me, Ruan, Niall and Doaky that see the amount of work we do. When everybody’s got the day off we might be out kicking and we’ll be there for an hour after everybody else leaves as well. To reap the rewards from that is quite nice – it definitely makes the hard work worthwhile."
As for replicating the atmosphere of kicking under intense pressure, Humphreys admits it’s impossible to create an exact match.
Adding a competitive element definitely helps but the main ingredient to cooking up a success is simply hard work. As the old adage goes, ‘success is 10 per cent inspiration and 90 per cent perspiration’.
"That’s the million dollar question – how do you replicate the pressure? It’s virtually impossible to generate the same kind of pressure in training as you would get in a match. That’s why we put in those drills and those small competitions against each other: to try and replicate the pressure as much as possible.
"To be honest, though, sometimes when you’re playing in a game, it’s easier to kick because your focus is completely on the game. In training, sometimes your mind can wander if you’re having a bit of craic. Come game time, all you’re thinking about is the game so it can be easier to just zone out and concentrate on that one kick at a time.
"For home games, I get their early. We usually have a meeting about an hour before kick off so I’ll head out 20 minutes or half an hour before that, loosen up, have a couple of strikes and then hit a few more before the team warm up starts. It’s nothing too structured because I feel I’ve done all the preparation in the week.
"You’re not going to be able to change things or fix things in the warm up. It’s just a matter of making sure you’re totally comfortable with what the conditions are, getting loose and getting your striking going well. But if I didn’t get the chance to kick before a game, I wouldn’t panic because I know I’ve done my work in the week.
"It’s a bit like the lineout – you have to do your homework and, for me, that homework takes place out on the training pitch. It’s about getting my reps done and being as well prepared as I can come kick off."
For your chance to join Humphreys or a whole host of other Magners League stars at a unique kicking session, simply click here. But remember the competition closes this Sunday, so you’ll have to be quick.