Nigel Walsh's Remarkable Journey Leading South Canterbury's Winning Streak
Nigel Walsh played more than 170 senior games at prop for the Pleasant Point Rugby Club. He featured in seven finals and lost seven times.
Following 68 appearances for South Canterbury between 1992 and 1999 he hooked up with Marist Albion in Christchurch coaching the Colts. He guided the Dooleys to a final and they lost.
On Saturday, Walsh will coach South Canterbury in the Meads Cup final against Whanganui at Temuka Domain.
His green and black chargers have won a record 30 consecutive Heartland Championship matches, including the last two Meads Cup titles.
Whanganui was beaten by South Canterbury at the Domain in the 2022 decider. Don't expect South Canterbury to rest on their laurels.
"Whanganui don't have many weaknesses. They have threats across the park. Their coach Jason Hamlin is one of my good mates. We didn't play them in the round-robin so she's going to be a doozy," Walsh said.
"Last year is last year so we have to be ready to embrace this challenge. With our main ground in Timaru being rebuilt, Pleasant Point has been our base for two years. It was special to win that final last year. The ground looked a million dollars and Mum and Dad who've passed were no doubt looking down proud."
Walsh has deep roots in Pleasant Point. His father Murray is a life member of the rugby club and Walsh attended the local high school.
His South Canterbury career saw him tussle with Ireland in 1992 and achieve notable victories against present-day NPC opponents Counties Manukau (19-11), Southland (32-16), Manawatū (23-12) and Bay of Plenty (27-15).
Tragically a broken neck abruptly ended his career in 1999 but coaching was an obvious calling having done so as a player in a brief spell in Ireland.
Surprisingly Walsh was overlooked for the Pleasant Point senior role in 2012 so he joined Timaru Celtic and helped them win five consecutive senior titles.
“I was lucky to take over from Shaun Breen who’d won three championships in a row. A country boy going to a city club took me out of my comfort zone and was hugely beneficial for my coaching. From Timaru Celtic I was privileged to coach South Canterbury development and the New Zealand Marist XV,” Walsh said.
Walsh landed his first Heartland coaching gig as an assistant with North Otago in 2016 winning the Lochore Cup final against King Country (44-22). Two years followed as head coach. In 2019 he was appointed head coach of South Canterbury and made an immediate impact winning the Lochore Cup against West Coast in Greymouth 23-19. In stormy conditions halfback turned first-five Willie Wright defied the wind and a hostile reception from the Coasters on the sidelines to nail two clutch penalties late in proceedings.
"That was one hell of a day. West Coast in Greymouth is always a tough proposition and threw the kitchen sink at us that day. They gave Willie Wright a whole lot of grief, but he likes that,” Walsh said.
“I think this year’s Lochore Cup final will be a real cracker. Both sides gave us a real go. Poverty Bay is peaking at the right time and West Coast have had a phenomenal season.”
John and Lindsay Gilshnan, proprietors of Alf Harrison Menswear in Greymouth, are just one of the many businesses and workplaces on the West Coast that have dressed up their shop windows in Red and White colours to support the team. A crowd of between two to three thousand is expected at John Sturgeon Park.
South Canterbury has become phenomenal under Walsh. His approach to coaching emphasizes pride in the jersey, family, and inclusiveness.
“I wanted to reinstate real pride for the jersey. You’ve got to want to be there and bleed for it. Culturally I wanted complete buy-in from our Pasifika players. If I’d asked to pray with a Fijian in the 90s, I would have been laughed at. Today that’s acceptable. It’s about respecting everyone’s core values, identifying strengths, and encouraging them, and feeling comfortable,” Walsh said.
South Canterbury has been behind five times at halftime this year and rallied to win on each occasion. A powerful bench and the ability to go to another level is reassuring.
"It's frustrating but I guess every team is climbing into us because of our record. At halftime in the semifinal, we were down so we had to be honest with each other, figure out how we’re truly feeling and be patient getting into our patterns while making some subtle changes,” Walsh said.
“We know that when this team gets into third or fourth gear we are very hard to beat.”
Walsh has coached the New Zealand Heartland XV for three years and presided over an unbeaten Crusaders Development XV campaign.
He works for logistics and family-owned company Temuka Transport which are a big sponsor of rugby helping fund both the Crusaders and Highlanders. He is grateful for the enduring support of his wife Kate and son Mitch.
Bunnings Warehouse Heartland Championship Finals:
Meads Cup: South Canterbury v Whanganui, Saturday 14 October, 2.05pm, Temuka Domain.
Lochore Cup: West Coast v Poverty Bay, Sunday 15 October, 2.05pm, John Sturgeon Park
Both games will be televised live on Sky Sport and free to air on Sky Open.
John Gilshan from Alf Harrison Menswear is one of the many shops in Greymouth to show their support for West Coast in the Lochore Cup final