It was hard not to be moved by the scenes in Japan last weekend. A country beset by problems, economic and social, historic and contemporary, achieved what very few of their citizens thought possible at the beginning of 2019.
Siya Kolisi, the boy from a Port Elizabeth township, lifted the Webb Ellis Cup as the first black man to captain the Springboks.
‘Rainbow Nation’ usually refers to the multiculturalism of South African society, but and the term is particularlyrelevant to the coaching ticket behind this monumental feat, which counted a Welshman and an Irishman among its ranks. The latter, Felix Jones, received plenty of praise for his contribution since joining the set-up in August, described as “immense” and “amazing” by senior members of the squad.
Less is known about the other foreigner in the backroom; the other ex-Munster man, head of athletic performance Aled Walters. When it comes to the public, the role of the strength and conditioning department in any side’s success is largely overlooked. Those on the inside know exactly how crucial a factor it is to a winning campaign.
Aled left Munster for South Africa in March 2018, Rassie Erasmus having seen enough during his 15 months in Limerick to be convinced he was the man to get his squad of enormous Africans into championship-winning condition.
This was not just down to the scientific understanding of what players need to be physically capable of at the highest level. A significant,arguably more importantfactor was Aled’s unmatched ability to create an environment where players relish hard work and having a laugh in equal measure.
An S&C department’s role in a squad goes far beyond telling players how much to bench press or how far to run. Often underpaid, overworked, and desperately under-appreciated by those without an intimate knowledge of what they contribute, they are a vital link between players and coaching staff.
They drive the environment more than anyone else. When things are going exceptionally well, they keep feet on the ground. When things are going badly, they lift spirits, distract, and get everyonefocused on the next task.
If a player is struggling with form or not pulling his weight, it is rarely the rugby coach who approaches him. An S&C will be the first to pull him aside and have a word, relying on the strength of their relationship to speak openly and honestly and find a solution.
It is a very difficult balancing act to get right. You need the confidence of both the players and coaches, deciding what to pass up or down the chain and what to keep to yourself. The relationship with players is particularly delicate; without being in the friend zone, it’s difficult to get the best out of a player. Fail to maintain an understanding that you are the boss and all sorts of problems arise.
Aled, along with his colleagues PJ Wilson (now head of S&C at Bath) and Adam Sheehan, perfected this balancing act for the six years I worked under them. Fear is often used as a tool by coaches right across the sporting world.
Players were notoriously terrified from the moment they set foot in one of Joe Schmidt’s Irish camps to the moment they left. They were genuinely petrified of making a mistake and feeling the wrath of Schmidt’s disapproval in front of their peers.
With Aled, it was never a fear of repercussion, but a fear of disappointing him. That is the most powerful motivating factor you can have in life. Like the fear of disappointing a parent, I never wanted to let Aled down.
I’m sure that is exactly the sentiment he has managed to instil in the Springboks in the last year and a half.
This led to one or two questionable decisions on my part over the years, however. Those who follow international players on social media will likely have seen images of them wearing recovery boots at some point. These are like pants that gradually inflate with air in order to compress the leg muscles and aid recovery.
A few years back, we only had two of these machines in Munster. There had been some issues with lads taking them home for the night and not bringing them back in the morning, meaning other people couldn’t use them. I asked Aled if I could take a pair home one Tuesday, as I had physio at 9am the next day, so would be in nice and early. He agreed, but made clear that the boots were to be there first thing in the morning.
As happened once in a while, my timekeeping was a little off and I was under pressure to get out the door and make it to UL on time. When I sat in the car I realised I had forgotten the boots, so ran back to the apartment block and up the stairs. I was living in student accommodation at the time where doors were operated by key cards, which were constantly breaking and needing to be reset in the office.
I tried the door, and the key was not working. I cursed the keys and the management, knowing there would be nobody to reset the key until after 9 o’clock. I said to myself, “Well, it’s their problem now” and decided to kick in the door. I kicked once, twice, and at the third attempt, the lock gave, pieces of wood showering the hallway.
I kept a cabinet in the front hall, which I noticed was missing as I ran towards the kitchen. I remember thinking: “Where the fuck is the cabinet?” before opening the door and seeing a load of women’s laundry on a clothes horse in front of me. At which point it dawned on me.
I was in the wrong apartment.
In my desperation to avoid letting Aled down, I had kicked in the door of some strangers’ apartment, which was on the floor below mine. Thankfully after overcoming the initial shock, the residents saw the funny side and were able to laugh about it. After overcoming the initial embarrassment, I was able to do the same.
As well as giving an insight into the bubble that is professional rugby, where you will happily kick in the door of your apartment to get a pair of recovery boots, this also goes to show the kind of effect Aled had during his time at Munster, and why it was no surprise for anyone that had the pleasure of working with him to see a World Cup medal around his neck.