How Steve Borthwick's best signing will make England fighting fit for the World Cup
Brace yourselves, for we are on the cusp of the quadrennial period when talk of World Cup ‘bolters’ swells in volume. Over the coming weeks, expect a multitude of names to be proposed. Now, imagine if a team could refresh by bringing in an individual who won the last tournament.
Even after the change in eligibility rules allowing for players to switch allegiance between countries, such a coup would be exceptionally rare. But this is the luxury afforded to England with the arrival of Aled Walters.
In the bowels of the Aviva Stadium on Saturday, following a 29-13 loss to Ireland that did at least illustrate defiance, Steve Borthwick laid out his immediate priorities. England’s conditioning, he said, would need to be addressed.
The assertion did not seem unfair. England appeared to fade at the end of most halves this Six Nations and conceded late tries in each of their three losses to Scotland, France and Ireland. Already, then, with around two months before he starts work as the new head of strength and conditioning, Walters’ arrival feels significant.
Gregarious and charismatic, the Welshman was an integral member of Rassie Erasmus’ backroom staff as South Africa became world champions in 2019. You may have seen the group photo from that year in which a group of topless Springboks flexed their muscles and looked to have been chiselled from granite.
Functionality, however, trumps aesthetics every time. Besides humour, which we will come to later on, the other trait lauded by those to have worked with Walters is an ability to tailor programmes to playing style. It has been stressed at Leicester that Walters is regarded as another coach. He used to sit opposite Kevin Sinfield in the Oval Park offices.
To revisit Borthwick’s sentiments at the weekend, the term “conditioning” was used four times with “fitness” mentioned a mere once. England will have had fit individuals, yet they were evidently were not conditioned as a collective to the approach their new head coach implemented.
The simplest statistics bear this out. In four matches last November, as Eddie Jones tweaked England’s approach, the team averaged 600 kicking metres and 392 carrying metres. This Six Nations, average running metres stayed close at 391 per match with kicking metres rising to 1,057 per match.
That constitutes a big shift, particularly as the only Premiership side to return similar figures – with an average of 1,087 kicking metres and 368 running metres this season – is, you guessed it, Leicester Tigers.
Speaking to Telegraph Sport a year ago, Walters offered a layman’s guide to the specific scenarios he thinks about.
“When you have an aggressive line-speed in defence, you do it for as many phases as it takes – until you force a turnover or an error, or they score,” Walters explained.
“If that means it’s going to take 28 phases, the players need to be conditioned to do that. They need to get into a position where they need to be in the line and be unbelievably aggressive in accelerating off the line and making great decisions.”
South Africa’s try-line stand in the final against England in Yokohama springs to mind, as does the general intensity with which they overwhelmed opponents.
Ireland pride themselves on conditioning. A large Leinster contingent aids cohesion, and also ensures that more players are physically attuned to Andy Farrell’s philosophy. A relatively unheralded factor in France’s resurgence has been the improved relationships between national set-up and Top 14 clubs that have helped Thibault Giroud, Fabien Galthié’s head of athletic performance.
Together, Borthwick and Walters worked to repair Tigers’ reputation as an outfit that “went away”. The latter, right up there with Borthwick and Sinfield as far as influence on last season’s Premiership victory, made it personal.
“I’d be so embarrassed if anyone said ‘they go away’ about any team I’ve worked for in the past,” Walters admitted. “I’d be mortified.”
Towards the beginning of a well-travelled career, before stints with Taranaki, Brumbies and Munster, Walters was, by his own volition, “pretty shouty”. At the Scarlets, stung by a senior player branding him as “negative”, he altered his outlook.
Walters now wants those under his guidance to exude enjoyment. Indeed, Leicester recruited him on this basis, specifically to provide a counterpoint to the more serious personality of Borthwick. Walters himself recalls Borthwick saying: “I’m glad you smile because I don’t.”
“Aled’s strengths are his humility, his empathy and how he builds relationships with individuals in a very quick period,” says Jan McGinity, the former head of recruitment at Leicester. He, Simon Cohen and Geordan Murphy brought Walters to Tigers in 2020.
“That allows him to push them past traditional performance levels that they thought were their max,” McGinity adds. “Then, as those individuals see improvement, they are willing to continue to push themselves.
'Aled has a fantastic work ethic and a very dark sense of humour'
“He’s also not one to believe the hype, so he will apply himself, and has a fantastic work ethic. Lastly, he has a very dark sense of humour.”
Physical trainers must deliver familiar messages and repackage information in engaging ways. They often become the heartbeat of changing rooms and training grounds.
Walters learned buzz-words in Xhosa and Afrikaans while with the Springboks. He kept things fun, yet developed trust and earned respect with his own expertise and the results his methods yielded. Even though Francois Louw, the ex-South Africa flanker, remembers being taken to “very, very, very dark places”, you would do well to find a testimony that is less than glowing.
The rate of Tigers breaking into Test line-ups – and returning to them, in the case of Dan Cole – endorses the contribution of Walters. England have not been the sole beneficiaries, either. Tommy Reffell of Wales and Jasper Wiese, the tenacious South Africa back-rower, are two more success stories. Walters will have been proud, because he is ambitious, too.
In last year’s Telegraph interview, he reinforced as much: “At the back of my mind, I’ve felt myself go sometimes: ‘Were the Boks always going to win it, with the quality of player and calibre of athlete that they have?’
“That would be the biggest test for me. Can I work with another nation and at least get to a final? That’s the long-term goal, anyway.”
This summer, England’s crucial World Cup recruit will have that very chance.