Springbok centre Jesse Kriel – a man whose guns suggest he should know what he’s talking about – waxed lyrical this week about the difference conditioning coach Aled Walters has made to the team, but one of the Welshman’s predecessors needs to see a bit more to be entirely sold.
“Aled has come in and made a big difference with his emphasis on us training above the game level. The guys are definitely a lot fitter and able to go for 80 minutes,” Kriel said.
But former Bok conditioning coach Marc Steele, while cautiously optimistic, reckons the jury is still out.
Looking back at the Boks’ recently concluded southern hemisphere season, there were moments that backed up Kriel’s assertion.
There were the come-from-behind wins at altitude against England in June; Eben Etzebeth lasting a whopping 80 minutes against Argentina in Durban in August, despite having last carried a rugby ball in anger in December; the Boks not wilting in the last 20 minutes of the upset against the All Blacks in Wellington despite having a man in the sin-bin; and the Aussies not looking like scoring when the Springboks had Aphiwe Dyantyi yellow-carded last weekend.
In a country in which conditioning had become a national issue, the strides made this year have been more than encouraging for the rest of us, but the realist in Steele – who was the conditioning coach when the Boks won the 2007 World Cup – wants to see more than signs.
“If you look at the stats from the game in Wellington, there was only one team in it. One team did most of the playing and, speaking from a conditioning perspective, the difference between the two teams was night and day. I’m quietly optimistic, but I need to see a lot more.”
With Walters having only joined the Boks coaching staff in March, Steele – whose tenure with Jake White began with a heaven-sent, six-week training camp – said the well-travelled Welshman simply hadn’t had enough time to preach his gospel to the local franchises to the point where everyone was singing from the same hymn sheet.
“I don’t know how much infiltration Aled has had with the unions because nothing is centrally contracted. We need to have a proper central conditioning plan ... a more global plan, but it can be difficult because the unions need to have buy-in,” he said.
To illustrate his point about how far the Boks still have to go, Steele cited the example of the team they are chasing: “When the Boks had good results against them in 2009 and beat them three times in one year, they began their conditioning plan, which has been in place for about eight years now. That’s the time frame we’re looking at. Where marginal gains are being made, time is your friend when you have it and it is your enemy when you don’t.”
While he may have been a little late in arriving, the likeable Walters, who was kept away from the media this week by Boks coach Rassie Erasmus, seems to have made decent inroads into the local systems and built good relationships with his conditioning counterparts.
In the one interview he has granted, to The Late Tackle on rugby365.com, the 37-year-old, who, incidentally, claims to be a Kriel body double, came across as a man of dry wit, pragmatism and a firm believer in flexibility.
While the Bok position is only his first at international level, he has coached extensively since deciding as a “terrible rugby player” that he somehow wanted to be involved at the highest level by being a conditioning coach.
He started that journey with the Scarlets in Wales before moving to the Brumbies and Taranaki – under White and Colin Cooper, respectively – before going to Munster, where he met Erasmus and Boks defensive coach Jacques Nienaber, who have done as much to “shape” his philosophy as anyone.
Walters, who is popular with the players for inventing gorilla ball, a volleyball game played among the non-playing squad members with a medicine ball, said he was a fan of Erasmus’ approach because he allowed his coaches to take ownership of their programmes.
Judging by early impressions, he’s taken that and ran with it.