Why Aled Walters Could Be England's Saviour
When Rassie Erasmus took charge of the Springboks, the national team was in a mess. They had been nilled by the All Blacks in a 57-0 rout, the Boks had succumbed to Italy and they'd been defeated to Wales three times on the trot. The Miracle of Brighton in 2015 was bad luck, however during the Coetzee years there was a malaise within the side. One of the immediate problems Erasmus identified was fitness, or the lack of it. In order to win a World Cup, South Africa would need to be the fittest team in the world. To address the issue, Erasmus turned to the Welshman Aled Walters to address the conditioning of his side.
Walters had been at Munster since 2012 and his time at the club overlapped with Erasmus for just one season. In that time, he clearly impressed the new South African Head Coach because he was snapped up shortly after his appointment in 2018. During his time with South Africa, Walters came to be highly rated by the coaching staff and players alike. This can't have been an easy achievement as an outsider from Wales coming into the physical arena of South African rugby. The results soon began to follow and the South African pack were soon looking like freaks of nature ripping up trees everywhere they went. The entire side brought unmatched physicality and ultimately the World Cup title was secured after their demolition of England in the 2019 Final.
However, the fanfare of the 2019 World Cup was short-lived. Just four months after that famous victory the world began locking down with the arrival of COVID-19. In May 2020 it was announced that Walters was departing the Springboks early from his contract. Walters cited that in uncertain times he wanted to be closer to his family back in the UK. Walters' departure had a huge impact on the Boks. "Aled has made an enormous impact since joining the Springboks in 2018 and I know that while the whole squad will be sad to see him go, he will also have our very best wishes for the future," Erasmus said upon his departure.
"Aled has made an enormous impact since joining the Springboks in 2018 and I know that while the whole squad will be sad to see him go, he will also have our very best wishes for the future." - Rassie Erasmus in 2020
Walters was snapped up by Leicester's Steve Borthwick to resurrect the conditioning of his midlands side. When he arrived, Leicester were in the doldrums and a shadow of their former selves. A once fierce Tigers pack were now akin to kittens. With little time to make an impact on the remaining games, Leicester finished 11th in the table and they would have finished last had it not been for the Saracens salary cap discrepancies. Walters got to work behind the scenes and the next season they finished 6th. The season after, Leicester went on a 15 match unbeaten run to start the season and the Tigers would ultimately lift the title at the end of the campaign. Whilst this is not all down to Walters, this feat would not have been achieved without exceptional fitness and conditioning.
The success of Leicester and the value of Walters attracted the interest of one particular player. For the 2022 season, Leicester Tigers announced the signing of the 2019 World Cup winning fly half, Handrè Pollard. When pushed why he had made the choice to move to Leicester, Pollard said:
“Aled was a big factor for me coming to you [Leicester], he is world-class. He looks after people and prepares you to be in the best shape of your life. That excites me too, to work with Aled again."
“I only had two years with him at the Springboks and, when he left I was quite sad, so to be able to work with him again is massive for me. I can’t wait.” - Handre Pollard in 2022
The fact that Pollard considered Walters as a key factor in his move should speak volumes. The Leicester strength and conditioning coach was drawing some of the greatest talent from around the world.
When Eddie Jones was sacked from England last year, England came knocking for Borthwick. With little time until the World Cup, Borthwick looked to those closest to him to bring into the England set-up. Originally only Kevin Sinfield made the leap, however Borthwick would soon be joined by Richard Wigglesworth and Aled Walters once the Premiership was over. After yet another brief stint at a club, it was clear Walters had made an immediate impression on the new England Head Coach. Walters had already won a World Cup with South Africa and would provide much needed experience to Borthwick's backroom staff.
With Walters only arriving at the beginning of the summer, he had his work cut out right from the start with just a matter of weeks to get his squad into shape before the warm up games and more importantly the World Cup. There would be little time to waste and he would have to make an impact from the off.
At the last World Cup, we were receiving leaks from the camp that the players were being pushed to their absolute limits in training. No one had ever seen anything like it before. On the field, there were serious concerns about the state of England heading into that World Cup. England were looking toothless and lots of the players were looking incredibly slow running back into the defensive line in 2018 and early 2019. However, England then went on to put together two of their greatest ever performances when they played Australia in the quarter finals and the All Blacks in the semi finals. England blew New Zealand off the park when they demolished them at Yokohama. Therefore there are questions as to whether England were being put through their paces to such an extreme during the lead-up that they were often playing on tired legs at the weekend. As Eddie Jones always pointed out, it was the World Cup where it matters.
The hope is that Walters has been conditioning the English players to the extreme this summer. Success has followed Walters over the last few years with a World Cup title with the Springboks and a Premiership win with Leicester. He is experienced and knows what he is doing. It is undeniable that the England team have looked sluggish this year and fingers crossed this may be the reason why. Walters could be that ace card which England draw when they need it most. We will have a strong indication in the first game against Argentina whether England really mean business or not. If it turns out they have been sandbagging this summer and Walters has been putting them through the fitness regime of all fitness regimes then it will serve them well the further they progress into the tournament as bodies start to break and fatigue sets in.