Aled Walters has no qualms making the Springboks’ Rugby World Cup victory last year the highlight of his career, but he concedes the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic means he has to move on.
The Welshman, who has been the national team’s head of athletic performance since 2018 when Rassie Erasmus headhunted him, dealt new head coach Jacques Nienaber a meaty blow in terms of continuity earlier this week after securing an early release from his contract to join English club Leicester.
“It’s obviously very sad to be leaving,” Walters told the latest episode of the SA Rugby podcast.
“But with the current climate, it’s also exciting to get back home. My wife’s family is in Ireland, mine’s in Wales. It’s going to be nice to be closer to them.
“Of course, there’s also the challenge of working with one of the biggest clubs in Europe. It’s something very hard to turn down and I have massive respect for the Tigers, having faced them in the past with Munster.
“So, yeah, it’s a bittersweet moment. But it’s rugby. It’s life. I’ll forever be grateful for the opportunity to work with the Springboks.”
Walters has been widely credited with pushing the Boks’ conditioning to levels previously unheard of within a local context, an achievement that’s even more noteworthy given that, like Erasmus, he had just over 18 months to execute his blueprint.
“When I was first approached by Rassie, it was a no-brainer. As colleagues at Munster, I had complete faith in Rassie and Jacques and seeing the calibre of rugby players here made it a really attractive proposition,” he said.
“I knew things could happen.”
Despite the grand culimination of being crowned world champions, the Springboks’ journey to becoming fitness behemoths in Japan wasn’t always plain sailing.
“2018 was tough at times, but the seeds had been planted and that was a really exciting path of development, seeing how things would grow,” said Walters. “What was really interesting was how after losses in Mendoza and Brisbane, the team wasn’t really surprised to have beaten the All Blacks in Wellington. We were very comfortable and confident that something special was happening.” Those feelings proved prophetic.
“Last year was by far the pinnacle of my career, something I couldn’t have even dreamt of. There was the Rugby Championship win and then Japan, where all that planning came together,” said Walters.
“It was great working with a group so driven, but I also want to highlight the men that missed out. A lot of them came in and gave literally everything, guys like Andre Esterhuizen, Rynhardt Elstadt and Marcell Coetzee. They came so close, only to miss out. But their character was incredible throughout.”