How Roger Federer and the NFL inspire the Walker brothers

Wayne Bennett wrote a book called ‘Don’t die with the music in you’.  No chance of that happening to the Walker brothers.

The song sheet Ben and Shane Walker sing from is a soulful anthem to rugby league, played with what the French would call ‘joie de vivre’.

The brothers are the Barry [Green and] White of rugby league.

Saturday’s home clash with the Northern Pride will mark the brothers’ 200th Intrust Super Cup game in charge of the Ipswich Jets; it has been some ride.

The spontaneity the Jets play with looks to the casual observer like it is conjured out of thin air, but is in fact the result of a considered philosophy that can simply be called ‘Walkerology’.

“What is normal to us seems bizarre to other people,” Shane quipped.

You could write a book on what “Jets footy” is; this story touches on what the Walkers are famous for and what has been their trademark in reaching the double ton.

Short restarts

The Jets are probably most well-known for the short dropout from their own line or the short kick-off from a restart.

Three of the best came in a win over Souths-Logan at Davies Park several years back where Wes Conlon, the best exponent of the art in the world, found touch or regained possession from a halfway restart with a trifecta of kicks that warmed the heart and won the match.

First up was an end over end kick that bounced on its point, after travelling 10 metres, and straight over the defender on the sideline.

Conlon next showcased a curling boomerang style kick that travelled 20 metres before bending back as true as a Tully banana to lob into the arms of a Jet.

His final trick was a short grubber that seemed certain to travel only five metres, but kept bobbling along until it went 10.00001 metres; it mesmerised the Souths defender before Conlon fell on it.

Wes Conlon kicking. Photo: QRL Media
Wes Conlon kicking. Photo: QRL Media

"One of the reasons we do that is that we can’t come to terms with why you would kick the ball to the opposition and allow them to give it to one of the biggest, fastest and strongest blokes on the field with a 20-metre run-up to come and cannon back into your line," Shane said.

"It doesn't make sense.

"A lot of rugby league is played the way it is because that is the way it has always been played…so everyone falls in line, but you don’t have to fall in line.

"Far better to put the ball up and make it a 50/50 contest."

NRL teams are now utilising the short dropout or restart on a regular basis.

A classic example was last year at Suncorp Stadium when the Brisbane Broncos trailed 8-0 against the North Queensland Cowboys and were under the pump on their line; Jamayne Isaako, on the suggestion of Anthony Milford, unfurled a short dropout, and the Broncos got the ball back. The momentum swung and the Broncos won the game.

The Federer effect

Rain, hail or shine on game day Saturday, the Walkers and the Jets will have their training session three hours before kick-off.

Essentially it is all about providing a positive game day routine for the players, but the genesis of the ritual is not well known; remarkably, it stems from advice from a professional tennis player who once beat the world’s best.

"A mate of ours James Sekulov was a pro-tennis player who played Roger Federer once and beat him, and he used to say to us back when we were playing in Sydney: ‘I can’t believe you blokes lay around all day doing nothing on game day’," Shane said.

"In tennis you watch a major final and you will see Federer hitting up in the morning and doing things that come naturally to him, not laying around in a hotel bed eating pasta and ordering club sandwiches, which is what can happen if you lay around in a hotel room.

Our players know that three hours prior to playing they will do the video and go through the game-day routine we do and that sets them up mentally and physically to be in the right place come kick-off time.”

As for taking the idea from the sport of tennis, Shane said: "We are happy to have our thinking challenged from other quarters."

Win ratio

The Walker brothers' winning ratio of 57.5 per cent is often overlooked by their critics.

To put that in perspective, one of the most successful NRL coaches of the modern era, Des Hasler, has a winning ratio of 57.9 per cent; Ivan Cleary, regarded as one of the game’s best coaches not to win a premiership, has a win ratio of just 46.9 per cent. 

Walker brothers on the sideline. Photo: QRL Media
Walker brothers on the sideline. Photo: QRL Media

"We are known for a lot of things, but I hope we are just as well known for having a near 60 per cent win rate," Ben said.

"Just as try scoring is more important than completions, in our game as coaches winning is more important than trick shots.

"Our win rate is something we are more proud of.

“I get offended by people who say that we are a risk when we have won a competition; people see us as a risk because we do things a bit different but they don’t look at the win/loss ratio and say that whatever they are doing is actually working."

NFL inspiration

Like Wayne Bennett before them, the Walkers have looked to other sports for inspiration including the NFL.

The tactic of pressuring the dummy-half near their try line while defending is one of them.

"It has taken a long time for the referees to understand that you are allowed to move up when the ball is behind the foot,” Shane explained.

"It is NFL-inspired thing. We get down in the same fashion around the ruck as they do in the line of scrimmage in the NFL, where the linebackers get down in that position and really explode off as soon as the ball is ‘spiked’, or the bloke puts it between his legs for the quarterback.

"We are the same... as soon as it is behind the foot, we train to get off the line and sack the dummy-half."

The Walker brothers' first game as Ipswich co-coaches was a trial against a star-studded Sydney Roosters outfit at North Ipswich Reserve, where they lost 18-16.

"I remember talking to the referees before the game and telling them exactly what we were going to do, and that’s to sack the dummy-half like they try and sack the quarterback in NFL," Ben recalled.

"We demonstrated to the refs exactly what we were going to do.

“We’ve been doing that for nine years....against the Roosters it was three tries each and part of the reason for that was our goal line defence.

"We took that from NFL."

Contract football

Duncan Thompson, one of Queensland’s greatest halfbacks, became a successful coach of all-conquering Toowoomba sides famous for a style of play called "contract football".

Growing up in Toowoomba themselves, the Walkers have been influenced by the philosophy behind contract football.

The Walker brothers doing what they do best. Photo: QRL Media
The Walker brothers doing what they do best. Photo: QRL Media

"We never met Duncan but our father Garry was certainly coached with a lot of those methods and would always talk about it,” Shane said.

"We played football up in Toowoomba at Athletic Oval in front of the Duncan Thompson Stand and contract football is always something that intrigued us.

"To give the ball to someone in a better position was something that resonated with us.

"Back in the day contract football was about you having ‘a contract’ with the bloke in your team to follow him forward, and if he could promote the ball to you he’d promote it.

"They used to do a lot of rugby union-type plays where you’d go into the tackle and [a teammate] would take the ball off your hands and away they’d go.

"Some of the things that we do to keep the ball alive, and off the opposition, is in that vein now."

Completion rates be damned

Talk to Shane about completion rates and he says this: "This myth that completion rates means everything is nothing more than exactly that…a myth."

The start of this year’s NRL season is a good example of that where Canterbury Bulldogs have the best completion rate of any of the 16 teams on 83 per cent, but sit on the bottom of the ladder.

Ben once crunched the numbers on this very issue.

"I did a study of the top five completion rates each year for three years and the teams in the top five for completion rates weren’t necessarily the teams that finished in the top five on the table - in fact, often they were in the bottom five," Ben said.

"You don’t get two points for completing at 85 per cent... you get two points for scoring more tries than the opposition, so our focus is more on how do we score a try, rather than how we can complete a set."

That explains why Ben once said that if he had a giant video screen in the dressing room for players to watch, he would have former Rothman’s Medal winner Ewan McGrady on continuous loop.

"It would be someone like Ewan McGrady, Allan Langer or Steve Renouf scoring tries because the beauty of those types of players is that they can score on tackle one from 95 metres out, like Pearl did in the 1992 grand final against St George, as easily as someone crashing over from two metres out.

"You can score on tackle one from your own try line if you move the ball around.

"With defence the way it is these days it is as easy to score from your own half as it is from the opposition’s half.”

NRL gig

The Walker brothers were close to being appointed as Gold Coast Titans coaches at the end of 2017 before Garth Brennan secured the gig.

In the wake of Ipswich’s Intrust Super Cup and NRL State Championship wins in  2015, there was a sense that the Walkers would soon be given the reins of an NRL side.

That is yet to occur, but the Walkers do not believe their ship has sailed.   

"I wouldn’t suggest it has passed us by,” Shane said.

"The NRL has a habit of rolling out the coaching merry-go-round, but eventually a more forward thinking board will think ‘why are we just reinstating the old tried and tested?’.

"Our day will come.”

Producing players

The Walker brothers have certainly done the game of rugby league a great service in the way they have unearthed and developed players on a shoestring budget.

Look around the NRL today and there are plenty of footballers who have had small fortunes spent on them, and the path to success cleared for them, from their early teenage years.

The Jets have not had the luxury of well-financed elite development systems and they do not spend big on ex-NRL players.

"There has been a plethora of players that we have seen something in at an age when others believed their moment had passed by,” Shane said.

“We plucked Billy McConnachie out of Mt Isa after Ben saw him at a Murri Carnival.

"Kurt Capewell had been at two NRL clubs and then came back to us and has reinvented himself as an NRL player down at Cronulla.

Kurt Capewell in action. Photo: QRL Media
Kurt Capewell in action. Photo: QRL Media

“Slade King was running up and down Burleigh hill one day like a madman with great regularity... we looked at him and thought if we can teach this bloke to catch and pass, he might make a decent footballer, and he went on to play first grade for us.

“Michael Purcell was running around out at Mitchell when we hatched a plan to bring him down here and he ended up the Intrust Super Cup leading try-scorer.

“Josh Cleeland played in our lower grades and then did his cruciate and without medical coverage.... it took him three years to get back on the park; he was once as big as George Rose, but eventually went down to Canterbury and shone in the NSW Cup."

Positive thinking

You won’t hear a negative word pass the Walker brothers' lips.

The Jets sit on the bottom of the Intrust Super Cup ladder after three rounds and Ben is, as you would expect, “excited”.

“We’ve lost three in a row and I am more excited about training than I would be if we’d won three in a row,” Ben said.

“When you win three in a row you are obviously doing things right, but you can become complacent and not knuckle down and focus on the things that got you those wins.

"We have made huge improvements between our first loss and third loss.

“The things we worked on from our loss three weeks ago came to fruition on Saturday night [against Easts] even though we got beaten by two points.”

Ben said what the coaches had tweaked had "really helped the team" and if they could continued to refine it this week, they would "get a win on Saturday".

"As coaches, we work on players' strengths and everyone in the team is aware of each other’s strengths and it starts to build, which is why in our nine seasons we have gone on runs of winning six or seven in a row and gathered momentum on the back of that.

"We have gathered momentum with three losses... for instance, the players around Josh Cleeland and Julian Christian are starting to understand how they play.”

Wayne Bennett

The Walker brothers history with their former coach Wayne Bennett is long; it has had its twists and turns, and ups and downs as well.

Ben said you could “write a book” on it.

In a nutshell though, Bennett’s influence is vast and long-standing.

“Wayne is a massive influence on us, whether you want to admit it or not,” Ben said.

“He coached our dad [Garry Walker] at Brothers in the early 1980s.

"I can still remember when I was five and six when dad came and spoke to me about footy, his views came directly from Wayne Bennett’s coaching.

"My views on coaching started at that point because dad is a very good coach - the best we’ve had, and his views were very much moulded around what Wayne taught him.

“Our coaching philosophy is to work hard, compete hard and show off your skill – three very simple things.

"That is effectively born out of what we took out of Wayne’s real strengths as a coach and he instils that in all his teams.

"That is how we train every single day and how we play… we compete hard, we work hard and we are skilful."

If there is a song that sums up the Walker brothers, it is Frank Sinatra's ‘I did it my way’, only for the two Ipswich coaches we’d have to change the title to ‘We did it our way’.

Often brash, often controversial, always entertaining.

The Walkers' success has come on the back of an unshakeable belief in their methods, as Ol' Blue Eyes sung in his hit song.

One verse perhaps sums them up best:

Yes, there were times I’m sure you knew

When we bit off more than we could chew

But through it all when there was doubt

We ate it up and spat it out

We faced it all and we stood tall

And did it our way...

The Walker brothers on the sideline. Photo: QRL Media
The Walker brothers on the sideline. Photo: QRL Media