Good bloke Kevvie ready for big stage – Kevin Walters

Article from Men of League Magazine Issue 61 – March 2016

Kevin Walters is only of those rugby league men who is universally described as just ‘a good bloke’. He’s made the good early fist of ensuring good blokes don’t always come last.
By Steve Ricketts.

Kevin Walters has nothing but admiration for today’s young rugby league players, despite his tough initiation as Queensland’s new State of Origin coach.

That doesn’t mean he is not upset at the fact so many of his charges broke curfew at the Emerging Origin camp in Brisbane in January 2016, but he also understands, that for the most part, the players are committed to their sport.

“A lot of old players get critical of the modern day player,” Walters says. “But I see how hard they work. I see how hard they train. I see how little alcohol they do drink.

“That’s not everything, but they are really committed to their sport, which they need to be because they are pros. They make the generation of our day look like amateurs, to be honest. The amount of stuff they do. I take my hat off to them.”

Back in the day, Kevin Walters started his senior football life with Ipswich club Booval Swifts and then with Brisbane club, Norths’ Devils, where older brother Steve was contracted.

He is grateful that he and his talented football brothers – twin Kerrod; Steve, Brett and Andrew – all had good coaches in the juniors and at school, singling out Bob Stumer from Ipswich East State School for special mention.

“He was just brilliant guiding us, not being over the top with things, just giving us good advice,” Walters says. “These days it is hard to get people to volunteer to coach the kids. We were so lucky with our coaches. They taught us a lot about the game, training and good habits, and we were obviously keen students of the game as well.”

When Kevin joined the Canberra Raiders in 1987, Don Furner was officially head coach, with Queensland Origin coach Wayne Bennett his assistant.

Walters was named Raiders’ Rookie of Year in 1987 and came off the bench for the injured Mal Meninga in the 18-8 loss to Manly-Warringah in the last grand final played at the SCG.

At the end of the season, Bennett returned to Brisbane to take on the role as inaugural coach of the Broncos. He lured Walters to the Broncos in 1990, and ‘Kevvie’ went on to play in five Broncos premiership winnings sides, the last in 2000 as captain.

In 1989, Walters had played an interchange role in Canberra’s extra-time grand final triumph over Balmain.

“I wasn’t playing a lot of first grade at the Raiders, and I felt the Broncos would be the right fit for me,” he said.

How right he was, with Walters forming one of rugby league’s best ever halves combination with Allan ‘Alfie’ Langer, the duo playing in the Broncos’ inaugural premiership winning side in 1992, and then backing it up with another (Winfield Cup NSWRL) title the following year; the Super League premiership in 1997, and the inaugural NRL premiership in 1998.

Langer ‘retired’ in 1999, but decided that had been a hasty decision, and retrieved his boots from the garage to head to England to play for Warrington.

That left Walters to guide the power packed Broncos team of 2000 to a 14-6 win over the Roosters in the grand final.

“We just needed a little bit of leadership and guidance in 2000 and I was able to provide that at halfback,” Walters recalls. “The young fellas … they weren’t going to be stopped.”

Walters joined Langer for a brief stint in Warrington, but homesickness saw him return to Brisbane, and it wasn’t long before he was part of the Broncos coaching staff, taking charge of feeder club Toowoomba Clydesdales before joining former teammates Gary Belcher (Canberra) and Glenn Lazarus (Canberra and Brisbane) as Bennett’s right hand men.

At the end of the 2005 season, after Brisbane’s longest premiership drought, all three were sacked by Bennett, who was looking to reinvigorate the club.

For a time there was no social interaction between the Walters and Bennett.

“If I was walking down the street, I wouldn’t cross the street to say hello to Wayne,” Walters said. “There was a lot of anger from inside of me in the early part, but that gradually lifted. In 2005 I couldn’t understand why I was sacked, but I just didn’t have the experience that was required to fill the job.”

Ultimately Walters would see his axing as the best thing that could have happened as he forged his own coaching identity through stints in charge at Catalans Dragons in France and then back at his beloved Ipswich Jets.

He then joined Melbourne Storm’s coaching staff before being invited by Bennett to join him at the Newcastle Knights, and ultimately, back home in Brisbane.

Walters was everyone’s tip as new Queensland coach when Mal Meninga accepted the Kangaroos’ post, but it only came after Cowboys premiership coach Paul Green passed it by.

Walters played 20 Origin games for Queensland, his last as five-eighth in Green’s debut Origin match in 1999.

Walters knows that people in authority have to make tough calls, and while it’s likely that in his private moments he cursed the QRL power brokers who made Green their number one choice, he is philosophical, especially as one of the first things he did as Origin coach was to sack four long serving Maroons staffers in Dr Roy Saunders, Jason Hetherington, Michael Hagan and Scott Thornton.

“It was very difficult,” he said. “I worked with these guys. I knew their input and how hard they worked for Queensland and State of Origin in a very successful reign.

“I just felt there needed to be fresh faces, a couple of subtle changes.

“It was a tough day for me when I had to pick up the phone and ring these guys. It was awful, but I felt it was my job to do that and to steer this great Origin team to make sure they are successful again for the next period of time.”

Walters said he had a transition plan, particularly as so many of the current stars have reached the veteran category, and will leave the Origin arena over the next two or three years.

But he is confident he will not have to tap the older players on the shoulder, to tell them it is time.

“Players generally know when their time is up,” Walters said. “Hodgo [Justin Hodges] knew. The great players have a good understanding of where they belong.”

As former coach of Queensland’s under-20s Origin side, Walters is used to dealing with young men but even he was shocked by the blatant disregard for authority shown by the Emerging squad, some of them in their mid-twenties.

Speaking to 4MMM from his Auckland hotel room ahead of the Nines in February, Walters spoke of his sadness at the need to ban eight players from Origin consideration for the next 12 months.

“I was disappointed more than anything to see the end result, but now we can get on with our lives,” he said.

“The players were very regretful. They understand the importance of State of Origin and the importance of doing the right thing.

“It’s not just me they let down. They let down their teammates and the current State of Origin team.

“Hopefully they can get on with things, play good football for their clubs and be back again, a bit more mature, in 12 months. They’re paying a heavy price, but hopefully, in the scheme of things, they will benefit, and so will the QRL.”

One thing Walters will never lose is his sense of humour and he admitted he had been guilty of a curfew infringement as a player, with Langer and Steve Renouf ahead of a pre-season match for the Broncos against the Warriors in New Zealand.

Walters and Langer were fined $1000 each by coach Bennett but Renouf got away with it.

“Steve put some stuffed pillows under his doona, so it looked like he was tucked up in bed asleep,” Walters said. “Alfie and I weren’t that smart.”

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