From the mag: The Boks’ unsung hero

Head of Athletic Performance Aled Walters chatted to Jon Cardinelli about his holistic approach to conditioning, the Springboks’ top performers and the players’ decision to avoid alcohol in the lead-up to the World Cup final.

Many of the Springbok players and coaches have said the World Cup trophy tour exceeded expectations. As a foreigner, how special was that experience for you?

It was pretty surreal. We spoke about it when we held our alignment camps earlier in the year. Our manager, Charles Wessels, said the program was 19 weeks long and  the 20th week was reserved for the World Cup trophy tour. To get to the point where we were on the bus and there were people dancing in the streets … it was unbelievably special. There was another side to it, though. I got to know some of the players and coaches on another level. One day, Lukhanyo Am stood up on the bus to tell us we were travelling through Makazole Mapimpi’s old neighbourhood. We went through Mzwandile Stick’s old ’hood of New Brighton and Rassie Erasmus’ home town of Despatch. It was beyond anything I could have imagined.

How did your home country of Wales react to your achievement with the Boks?

I went into the Wales change room after we played them in the World Cup semi-final. I know a few of the players and coaches, having worked with them before. They were genuinely happy for me going on to the World Cup final. I got a lot of messages from people back in Wales. I hope I did them proud. In the end, I’m just a boy from a small village in West Wales who got a World Cup medal.

At the time of your move from Munster to SA Rugby in early 2018, the Boks weren’t expected to perform well at the World Cup. What made you believe you could turn things around in terms of their conditioning?

I have to make the point that I absolutely trust Rassie and Jacques Nienaber, who I worked with at Munster. They were the only guys I knew who had been in the South African system. I believed them when they said they could turn the team around to the point where they could compete at a World Cup. I saw what they achieved at Munster. I believed what we did at the Boks in 2018 would prepare us for 2019, and similarly what we did in early 2019 would prepare us for the World Cup itself. I had no reservations. When Rassie asked if I wanted the job, I said yes straight away. I had a feeling something special was about to happen. When we left Ireland, the players at Munster were also convinced the Boks were going to be serious World Cup contenders. You won’t understand how bloody good Rassie and Jacques are until you’ve worked with them.

Let’s put the turnaround into perspective, though. The Boks endured their worst-ever season in 2016 and suffered several record losses in 2017. Conditioning was highlighted as one of South African rugby’s biggest weaknesses.

It’s hard for me to comment on what happened previously. We certainly didn’t try to fix anything from a conditioning point of view. I trusted my philosophy, and trusted that how we would train would ensure we’d perform at a good level.

The Boks won 50% of their Tests in 2018. Did it take time for the players to adapt to the new systems, and specifically to your conditioning program?

The players had to learn very quickly what the systems were. It was obvious in the first two Tests against England there were some frailties. The players picked things up after that and we managed to build a foundation. Once we had that, we were able to add a little bit more in the Rugby Championship. What Rassie also realised was  we needed a greater catchment of players. Players needed to get caps in 2018 to be ready for 2019. Once certain aspects were developed, we could look to develop the conditioning program.

While you push the players hard at training sessions you also find time to crack the odd joke. How important is it for a coach to maintain that balance and to keep the players engaged?

When I’m cracking jokes, half of the players are laughing and the other half are probably thinking, ‘What a lame joke.’ I suppose everyone is laughing when I try to speak Afrikaans or Xhosa. That’s just my personality. I believe in working the guys hard en route to our goal, but I also believe in having a bit of fun along the way. I couldn’t be strict and serious all week, and you can’t do the same thing for 20 weeks in a row. You’ll lose the players if you don’t keep them motivated and engaged. Time management is so important, too. The warm-up has to be relevant to the training session, and it has to be relevant to the focus of the game on the weekend. I can do a beautiful strength and conditioning session for 15 minutes, with a lot of cones and so on, and it may be great in isolation, but if it’s not relevant to the session to come I’m taking time away from the other coaches. Imagine if I did something like that in the buildup to the World Cup final, where we had a six-day turnaround.

The players were expected to train every session if they wanted to be considered for selection at the World Cup. Can you explain that approach and explain why it isn’t counterproductive?

Knowing that participation in training determined selection for the next game forced the players to build up a robustness and resilience, mentally as well as physically. The players knew they were going to have to man up for the Monday session. Obviously we tweaked the session accordingly for the players who required a restricted amount of training. We managed players like that. What you need to understand is that managing sometimes involves pushing through rather than pulling back. Even in recovery players will have to get on with it. Overall, that does influence the attitude.

Which players stood out for you at the World Cup in terms of fitness and performance?                                                    

Bongi Mbonambi is one of the real success stories. We had a chat before the start of the Super Rugby tournament last year and I was quite critical about his performance. He trained unbelievably hard in response. This year, he performed like an absolute machine from our first day of training in Pretoria. What’s more, he maintained that intensity in the games.

The conditioning of the forwards was on another level. How hard did you work the guys in the buildup, and what was the focus?

You have to prepare the players for the task at hand. Take Frans Malherbe, for example. I have so much respect for that guy. Some people judge him by his appearance to determine whether he is fit or not. I challenge anyone to tell me that he didn’t do a great job at the World Cup. He was unbelievably fit for what he needed to do: which was scrum, maul, tackle and give the team great width on defence. Francois Louw was so robust yet so resilient. He missed one training session the whole year. That is remarkable. Duane Vermeulen trained every session. To single players out is quite tough, because every man put in a big shift.

New issue: Special awards edition

The Boks sustained relatively few injuries despite the intense trainings sessions and the attritional nature of the World Cup matches. How hard did you and the medical team have to work to keep bodies on the field?

The guys were very physical and would get pretty banged up. A lot of them have a history of injuries. What impressed me most was how tough they are. They took the hits but they never complained. They got on with it. Credit to the medical team too for getting these guys to bounce back week after week. They worked long hours to get players ready for the next day’s session. That’s the stuff people don’t see.

How much did the World Cup draw and Erasmus’ split-squad policy during the pool phase aid you in your quest to peak in the playoffs?

A lot was made about the 12-day gap between our last pool game against Canada and the quarter-final against Japan. Some felt we might lose our edge. I was thrilled with the opportunity to rest and prepare for the playoffs. We gave the players two days off after the win against Canada. When we returned to training, Frans Steyn said, ‘I feel like I’ve had a week off.’ It was so mentally tough at the World Cup that even a two-day break was a big thing. Most teams are treading water throughout the tournament. We got a decent chance to breathe and prepare for the playoffs.

Was it hard to keep those who weren’t playing in a particular pool game fit and motivated?

I had to work with the eight players who weren’t in the match-day squad to ensure  they were up to the required level before the next game [where they would be picked]. They needed to cover a full Test week for a starting player. They were unbelievably positive.

Erasmus didn’t make any unforced changes in the playoffs. Did anything change with regards to the management of the non-playing reserves at that stage of the tournament?                                                            

I can’t say enough for those eight players. They sacrificed so much for the good of the team. It would be easy if all they had to do was hold tackle bags at training. They had a very important job to do, though, in the sense they served as the opposition for the match-day squad. They had to be Japan, Wales and England. After the team was announced on a Monday, they had to get over their disappointment and start thinking about their role for the rest of the week. Elton Jantjies would have to start preparing as if he was George Ford facing the Boks in the World Cup final. These guys had to know what the opposition would do in every scenario. Our training sessions were only as good as what that opposition offered in terms of a challenge. The attitude of those players was pretty special. It didn’t get any easier for them at the end of the week when they’d come to train with me. I’d give them a bit of a hiding to make sure they simulated the intensity of a Test match.

In the final, the Boks repelled England for 25 phases shortly before half-time. They appeared to up their intensity in the second half. Do you feel they proved they were the fittest team in world rugby?

I don’t believe that keeping England out for 25 phases was down to fitness alone. It was down to a mindset. It was down to the players not wanting to disappoint Jacques with their defence. I don’t know if we are the fittest team in the world. What I do know is the players were unbelievable on that day. Everybody was aligned in terms of the plan. The game against Wales was immensely physical and there was a six-day turnaround. The goal was to be as well prepared as possible with the minimum amount of fatigue.                                                                                            

Did you do anything different in terms of preparing the team for the final?

The majority of the guys didn’t touch a drop of alcohol after the win against Wales. 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. There was a time to celebrate and 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. Again, I don’t know if we’re fit or not. What was pleasing was 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 came together? I think it’s everybody knowing what they need to do and sticking to the plan. It’s not just one thing.

How wary is the group of complacency after a success like a World Cup victory?

Winning the World Cup was massive, but every game is important. I would love to be part of a team that wins a Lions series in 2021. 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. 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. 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 we don’t drop below that.

*This article originally appeared in the January issue of SA Rugby magazine, on sale now!

Post by