There isn’t a particular reason why England were so utterly annihilated by France on their own patch last weekend. Across every facet of the game, at every crucial moment, in virtually every collision above every blade of grass at Twickenham, France were simply the superior team.
But one variable would have been noticeable to both rugby aficionados and those watching the sport for the first time. France simply looked fitter, faster and stronger. It was as if the men in blue were gliding through a parallel universe governed by different laws of physics to their opponents. The men in white, so often scrambling to catch up, were seemingly trudging through a field of porridge as they chased cobalt shadows in the rain.
There is no quick fix for England. The structures that support the respective Test teams across the English Channel are in contrasting states of health. One is held up by 44 teams spread between three divisions in an ecosystem that is the envy of the world. The other can barely scrape together 11 teams in its premier division.
But, there is at least some cause for optimism. And even though one man alone won’t provide all the answers, the acquisition of Aled Walters to oversee England’s strength and conditioning ahead of the World Cup is a major coup for Steve Borthwick.
“He’s unreal,” says Handre Pollard, the fly-half who has worked with Walters at both international and club rugby, first with the Springboks during their triumphant march to the 2019 World Cup and most recently with Leicester Tigers.
“He’s one of the main reasons why I came [to Leicester]. He came to visit me in November when we played England two years ago. We caught up and he told me about the situation. Having him here was a no-brainer.”
Lood de Jager, Pollard’s Springboks teammate who plays his club rugby in Japan with the Panasonic Wild Knights, is equally appraising. “You always feel like he’s on your side,” the towering lock says of Walters. “You know he’s constantly driving the highest standards but he’s with you on that journey. It never felt like you had to impress him. You knew he was there to help you get better and maintain those high standards and you were on board straight away.”
Articles like this can often veer into hagiographies. Rugby players and coaches, even those who face each other as bitter rivals, very rarely speak ill of someone else in the business on record. Reputations matter and that sense of fraternity is partly what makes the sport so special but it can often present its protagonists as one dimensional.
You always feel like he’s on your side. You know he’s constantly driving the highest standards but he’s with you on that journey.
Lood de Jager
But with Walters the sentiment seems to match the man. Rassie Erasmus, South African Rugby’s director of rugby who was in charge of the Springboks in 2019, spoke glowingly of Walters when he left for the English Midlands. Borthwick himself pointed out that every team Walters has touched, including Munster in Ireland, has improved to the point of winning trophies.
“He’s world class,” adds Richard Wiggelsworth, who first worked with Walters as a player at Leicester before taking on the role of head coach at the club. After this season, Wigglesworth will join Walters as a coach within the England camp.
“I turned up [at Leicester in 2020] as a 37-year-old player, probably pretty nervous in that I thought I knew exactly what would work for me,” Wigglesworth says. “I was arriving to a new environment thinking that the conditioner was going to make me change and adapt. But the first conversation we ever had he asked me immediately, “What works for you?” That’s how we started.
“From then on he kept surpassing my expectations, both as an S&C coach and as a person. I don’t think I’ve worked with anyone better in terms of how he creates a feeling around the squad.”
It can’t just be Walters’ personality that makes him stand out, can it? I asked Pollard, de Jager and Wigglesworth to pinpoint a specific training method or exercise drill that Walters utilised to help improve them as athletes as well as the teams around them. Apart from de Jager mentioning an increase in time on the rowing machine and Wattbike – “So we could keep our fitness up without impacting our joints and going easy on our body” – details are in short supply.
“In terms of the work [S&C coaches do], that is pretty standard,” Pollard explains. “Most guys will have pretty similar ways of doing things. Aled’s personality is what makes him stand out and what makes him such a special S&C guy.
He’s constantly giving me information and supporting me. He helps me organise the squad and gives me advice. He has loads of experience with the Springboks, Munster, Leicester. He’s a serious operator.
“He knows when to lighten the mood and when to be hard on us. Some coaches can be pretty intense at all times. He’s such a great reader of the room and will lighten things up with a joke. They’re not always funny but he tries his best. It’s a fine balance. Having a guy like him just keeps the mood in place. It’s never too high or too low. He really is so good at that.”
Wigglesworth agrees, adding that Walters is meticulous in the way that he individualises programmes for every player. While this makes rugby sense given the unique demands of each position and the physical composition of each member in the squad, Wigglesworth suggests that Walters’ approach is also born out of a deep understanding of the human he’s working with.
“He wins you over,” Wigglesworth says. “So now you’re working with the S&C team and not against them. As a head coach he’s constantly giving me information and supporting me. He helps me organise the squad and gives me advice. He has loads of experience with the Springboks, Munster, Leicester. He’s a serious operator.”
What does this mean for England? The team is in need of some positivity. The chastening defeat to France underlined the gulf that has opened between themselves and the game’s leading teams. They must travel to Dublin to take on the number ranked team in the world chasing a grand slam.
Defeat is likely. And seven days is scarcely enough time to improve England’s sharpness. Borthwick and the leaders within the camp will demand a response, but expectations should be tempered.
Instead eyes will look out beyond another disappointing Six Nations campaign towards the horizon where a World Cup looms. England have been given a lifeline after finding themselves on the easier side of the draw. Argentina, Australia and yes, even Wales, won’t roll over, but a place in the final is a realistic aim.
What we saw four years ago was the manifestation of something less tangible. Those men in green refused to lie down because they knew the man next to him would not.
This group has been there before. So too has Walters and his work was evident in Yokohama where the Springboks repelled an English onslaught before they broke the game apart and exerted their forwards dominance. Much of that defence was built on a bedrock of strength and conditioning.
But extra time on rowing machines and tailored fitness regimes only tells half the story. What we saw four years ago was the manifestation of something less tangible. Those men in green refused to lie down because they knew the man next to him would not. That unity had been cultivated behind the scenes and if you’re to believe two players who lifted the Webb Ellis Cup that day, a certain strength and conditioning coach deserves a heap of credit.
“He definitely contributed to us winning the World Cup,” De Jager says of Walters. “He made us a fitter team, to a man. He’ll definitely improve England.”
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