- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
“When he said ‘jump’, the players just asked ‘how high?’… sometimes with a few swear words!”
Francois Louw had seen plenty of fitness coaches prior to March 2018, when Aled Walters joined South Africa from Munster. It did not take long for the back-rower to recognise an accomplished operator with a distinctive blend of charisma, empathy and industry.
Crucially, Walters demonstrated his own commitment. The West Walian learned buzzwords in Afrikaans and Xhosa while tailoring programmes to individual needs amid challenging logistics as players converged from leagues around the world.
In doing so, he quickly helped to drive the Springboks’ resurgence.
“In an international set-up, everyone is going to have bad days when they need to be left alone,” Louw explains, articulating the importance of “buy-in” on both sides.
“Players might not be pulling their weight but maybe they’re missing their wife and kids. They’re p----- off with everything and just want space but can’t have that because they need to train.
“It’s a skill to be able to see that as a coach, but also to know when you have to ramp up the pressure. That is how a star rises above the others, in the way they have a rapport with players.
“That’s what Aled had with us. And he took us to some very, very dark places.”
Walters’ globe-trotting CV looked long and distinguished before a Rugby World Cup victory was added to it last November. Spells at Scarlets, Taranaki, the Brumbies and Munster punctuated it. Colin Cooper, Jake White, Rassie Erasmus, Jacques Nienaber and Johann van Graan represented a glittering array of ex-colleagues.
“Aled was also with Dean Benton at the Brumbies,” volunteers Matt To’omua. “Anyone who knows Dean, knows he’s a guru. Dean coached Brisbane Broncos, Melbourne Storm, Brumbies, England and now the Wallabies.
“Having the experience of working with Dean, and his own from Wales, New Zealand, Ireland and now South Africa, is massive for Aled. You just can’t buy that.”
To’omua had left Leicester Tigers 12 months previously, yet still greeted the announcement of Walters’ move to the East Midlands with glee.
“That is the biggest signing in [a] while,” tweeted the Australia playmaker back in May. “Class. Well done.”
👏🏽👏🏽 That is the biggest signing in while. Class. Well done
— Matt Toomua (@mtoomua) May 6, 2020
Tigers had acquired their target as part of a bid for stability. The procession of head coaches had left sluggishness as well as tactical confusion in its wake.
“I think every head coach has had a different strategy over how the game should be played and that has led to uncertainty in the way the team has been conditioned,” admits Geordan Murphy, now director of rugby.
“When I was head coach, I felt that was a hangover – that we weren’t fit enough. Teams that have played against us felt that way, as well. Feedback from other head coaches and directors of rugby was that we would fade away at the back-end of games.
“That lost us games in the last 10 or 15 minutes when we had our noses in front. It’s a no-brainer that we needed to be more physically prepared.”
Former chief executive Simon Cohen discussed a new style of play, and the sort of fitness that would be required, with incoming head coach Steve Borthwick.
Cohen also believed the club would benefit from a gregarious motivator capable of commanding authority in the gym and on the field. With those priorities, he approached Elite Performance Partners – a global recruitment company whose clients have included Manchester City and the Football Association.
They delivered a list of candidates and, after an interview process fronted by both Cohen and Borthwick, Walters was appointed as head of physical performance with Erasmus hailing the “enormous impact” he had made for South Africa.
For some, the move indicated an encouraging, and overdue, broadening of perspective from Leicester.
“The club has forever looked to the past for the answers, rather than innovating and watching what is happening in the game of rugby or sport in general,” says one source.
“For me [Walters coming] signified a huge shift in mindset from that traditional view, so I got very excited by it. “There have been good people in the roles previously, but the club needs a change, and now they have Borthwick and Aled in the highest roles, it at least means they won’t be stuck in the past. They can forge their own direction.”
Walters seems to be an effervescent and engaging character who thinks outside the box. He introduced ‘gorilla ball’ – beach volleyball with a weighted medicine ball – to South Africa.
Tigers players had running drills sent through before Walters’ contract officially started on July 1. In June, skipper Tom Youngs conceded that his wife, Tiffany, had never seen him so drained upon returning home.
Deceptively beastly aqua bags have been recurring props at Oval Park since Walters turned up.
“They are sort of tube-shaped swiss balls with water in them, which moves around,” says lock Calum Green. “It’s designed to keep your core stable and, when we first used them, boys thought: ‘Ah, this’ll be quite easy’.
“They’re not that heavy, but after a few reps it gets tough. We did squats with them a while back and … you grow to hate them, basically. It’s all good fun, though.”
This would appear to be the crux of Walters’ approach. Besides the enjoyment factor, players graft for him because any hard yards come with the end goal, that of winning rugby matches, in mind.
Louw was a member of the Springboks ‘Bomb Squad’ – the six forwards Erasmus deployed on his bench. While there has been a suggestion that Walters aimed to slim down South Africa’s pack, the reality is different.
Although the humidity in Japan meant players sometimes shed two or three kilograms over 45 minutes, Louw states: “the idea was to be as big and strong and fit and fast as possible.”
South Africa’s display in the final, during which they suffocated England, is a perfect endorsement of how Walters dovetailed with Erasmus and Nienaber – two men he also collaborated with at Munster.
The man himself pinpoints how free-running Japan were restricted to just three points while Tendai Mtawarira was in the sin bin during the quarter-final. Walters’ take on the decider, a fairly self-deprecating one, says a lot.
“It was pleasing that we were able to play for 80 minutes in the final,” he told SA Rugbymag.
“Is that fitness, or is that everything coming together? I think that is everybody knowing what they need to do and everybody sticking to the plan. It’s not one thing in isolation.”
Given Walters’ well-travelled career, it is perhaps unsurprising that he had an affinity with Leicester before accepting his current job.
Between 1999 and 2002, while completing his undergraduate degree in physical education and sports science at Loughborough University, he was taught by Ian Smith – part of a famous Tigers family.
Smith is the father of Matt, current academy head coach and former Leicester centre. Ian amassed 331 first-team appearances himself.
In a recent interview for the club’s media channels, a grinning Walters remembered being awed by Smith and described him as “unbelievably tough, direct and straight with no messing”.
You sensed he was eager to bring those traits back to Tigers. Borthwick confirmed as much a fortnight ago: “Aled Walters did not leave South Africa to come here and not work towards winning.”