Head of athletic performance Aled Walters has paid tribute to the Springboks’ professionalism and attitude following their World Cup win in Japan. JON CARDINELLI reports.
Rassie Erasmus recruited Walters from Munster in early 2018. The Boks have taken giant strides forward in the department of conditioning since then and it would be fair to say – based on their superhuman performances in the World Cup playoffs – that Walters has transformed them into one of the fittest sides on the planet.
In a wide-ranging interview for the next edition of SA Rugby magazine – which will hit the shelves on 16 December – Walters speaks about the growth of certain individuals and the team as a whole. He highlights the brilliance of Erasmus and that of an 18-month plan that recently culminated in a World Cup victory.
Two years ago, conditioning was listed as one of South African rugby’s weaknesses. Two years before that, then Bok coach Heyneke Meyer lamented the players’ inadequate fitness levels after they were routinely outplayed by the likes of New Zealand late in a contest. In the lead-up to the 2015 World Cup, only three of the 31 players selected in the squad passed Meyer’s fitness tests.
The transformation over the past couple of years has been patent. The Boks were prepared to peak in the final itself, and certainly showed their physical and psychological mettle when they repelled England for 25 phases at the end of the first half.
While the Bok coaches and players swear by the man and his methods, Walters prefers to view the afore-mentioned highlights as a triumph for the group as a whole.
‘I don’t know if we are the fittest team in the world,’ he said with a chuckle. ‘What I do know is that the players were unbelievable on that day of the final. Everybody was aligned in terms of the plan in the buildup.
‘I never think, “Look how well we defended for 25 phases.” I don’t think that keeping England out for 25 phases was only down to fitness.
‘It’s was down to a mindset. It was down to the players not wanting to disappoint defence coach Jacques Nienaber. I was more pleased by everything coming together than any single thing or how the players fared in my department.’
Walters went on to speak about how the team prepared in the lead-up to the final. After beating Wales in the semi-final, the Boks had six days to recover and prepare for the decider against England. The players, as well as the coaches, were under pressure to get things right in a short space of time.
‘The recovery was brilliant in the week,’ said Walters. ‘The game against Wales was immensely physical and there was a short turnaround ahead of the England game. The goal was to be as prepared as possible with the minimum amount of fatigue.
‘The majority of the guys didn’t touch a drop of alcohol after the win against Wales. They were so disciplined. We trained hard ahead of the game against England and the recovery was a real standout. That said a lot about the standard of this team.
‘The boys looked after themselves at the World Cup,’ Walters added. ‘There was a time to celebrate and have a drink, and there was a time to stay dry. The players led that. By tweaking little things, by tightening a few bolts, it was amazing what we were able to achieve.
‘The challenge is to maintain that going forward. Why should a game against Scotland next July be any different? Why is it less important?’
Walters reiterates that he isn’t trying to transform the Boks into the fittest team in the world. The well-travelled Welshman – who worked in his native country, New Zealand, Australia and Ireland before moving to the Boks – believes in preparing athletes for a specific purpose and function.
What he witnessed at the World Cup in Japan, however, has affirmed his belief that Erasmus has built a special group of players and coaches. They shouldn’t want for ambition in the coming years, with the British & Irish Lions series scheduled for 2021 and the World Cup in France for 2023.
‘Again, I don’t know if we’re fit or not,’ Walters said. ‘What was pleasing to see was that we only conceded three points when we were down to 14 men against Japan. It was pleasing that we were able to play for 80 minutes in the final.
‘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.
‘We built up some momentum in 2019 and I guess what we have to figure out is what we did well and what we need to improve on going forward. I’m a really competitive guy, so the next game or series is always a big one for me.
‘We don’t want to be known as the team that got things right at the World Cup but then fell away,’ he added. ‘Rassie has made that point about consistency. We’ve set the bar as players and coaches. Now we have to be hard on ourselves and ensure that we don’t drop below that.’
The next time the whole group will be together is in the lead-up to the first Test against Scotland in July.
‘We’re already looking at the Super Rugby and European fixtures and where the international windows are,’ said Walters, when he was asked about the challenges of monitoring the players’ fitness over the next few months.
‘It would be nice to say “Here is the blueprint” on how we approach the conditioning for 2020, but you have to ask how much time you are going to have with the players. You have to look at how the game is going to change and which players are going to come in.
‘The challenge is the overseas clubs. Realistically, they don’t have to share anything with us. You can ask, but they don’t have to amend anything in terms of training.
‘The local franchises have been amazing. My job is to share the knowledge and findings that we’ve gathered over the past year. The information that we have got from them has been great and I hope that continues. The relationship with the Sharks, Bulls, Stormers and Lions has been fantastic. I will need to work closer with the Cheetahs and Kings, though, going forward.
‘We need to as a country … not place more of an emphasis on preparation, but understand the value of being better prepared and the role of the fitness coach,’ he added. ‘Head coaches have to realise the importance of that role. How you train on a weekly basis will have a massive influence on how robust your players are.’
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