Billy Walters admits he initially baulked at the opportunity to play under his father, Brisbane coach Kevin, because he feared the inevitable claims of nepotism.
Even now, nearly two years after signing, Walters feels he has to work twice as hard as any other Broncos player to prove he is in the NRL on merit and does not receive any preferential treatment because of his bloodlines.
Father-and-son combinations are suddenly a thing in the NRL. Penrith have Ivan and Nathan Cleary, Parramatta used to have Brad and Jake Arthur, until the young halfback joined Manly, while St George Illawarra will re-unite new coach Shane Flanagan with his son Kyle.
In the Clearys’ case, halfback and captain Nathan is the first name on the Panthers team sheet each week and has been before Ivan arrived for his second stint as coach, so talk of preferential treatment is easily shot down. Ivan Cleary this week suggested the path had not been as smooth for the Walters’, as Billy had not been a regular first-grader until this season.
“I think it’s been harder for Kev and Billy because Billy was not a lock-in selection – he’s had to change position and earn his position through hard work and good footy,” Cleary said.
“That’s been cool to watch. Both of them would be proud of each other. From a fatherly point of view, I’m sure Kev is very proud of Billy, and so he should be. He’s had to earn his way [into first grade], and there would have been lots of questions about nepotism [at the start]. It’s a great story.”
Billy, 29, has been a stand-out in the Broncos’ No.9 jersey this season. A playmaker by trade, Billy said his father told him in the pre-season that if he wanted to remain at five-eighth, “you’ll be playing with Wynnum, not the Brisbane Broncos”.
“I was pretty adamant I was a half, but it wasn’t working out, and Kev said to me, ‘if you want to play for the Broncos, it will be at hooker’,” Billy Walters said. “That’s where I trained in the pre-season. I’m glad we had that conversation.
“When I first signed here, I always knew there would be talk of nepotism. I’d only played two games with the Storm, and 12 games in two years at the Tigers, and the Tigers weren’t too flash hot when I was there. The only way to end that talk was to get out and play good footy.
“As long as the senior players in our team are happy to have me as hooker, that’s all that matters. Kevvy told me a lot of the senior boys wanted me as their No. 9, and that gave me a lot of confidence.”
Billy was celebrating Mad Monday with his Wests Tigers teammates at the end of the 2020 season when his father called to inform him he had been appointed Broncos coach. Tigers players were convinced Billy would immediately return to Red Hill, and joked it would be their last drink together.
However, Walters stayed at the Tigers for another 12 months before taking the call to return home.
Exactly how the relationship works between a father and son at a professional sporting team will always be fascinating.
Billy said he calls Walters “Kev” at training, and “dad” at home.
“The few times I have slipped up, the boys make sure they give it to me,” Billy says.
Kevin Walters says he is all too aware of the situation and makes light of it whenever he gets the chance.
“If he does something well, I’ll really go out of my way to highlight it [during review], I’ll basically take the piss and be like, ‘I love you, Bill’,” Walters said.
“When he walks into the building, he’s ‘Billy the Broncos player’. When he’s at home, he’s my son. I trust myself to make the right decisions based on this club, not my family.
“But I have a lot of belief in Billy and what he can bring to our team. We’ve seen a lot of that in the last six to eight weeks what type of player he’s become.”
There are plenty of No.9 options at Red Hill, including Cory Paix, Tyson Smoothy, and young gun Blake Mozer, and Billy Walters admits the depth of dummy-halves only motivates him further.
His famous uncles, Steve and Kerrod Walters, were two of the finest hookers to have played the game, and while often happy to give advice, Billy said Kevin had asked them to keep the feedback to a minimum.
As the Broncos prepare for Saturday night’s grand final qualifier against the NZ Warriors at Suncorp Stadium, Billy says his father is finally receiving the recognition he deserves.
“It never bothers me when people get into me, but I hate it when people attack Kev,” Walters said. “You have to bite your tongue and not react. The one thing that grinds my gears is when people say Kev doesn’t know footy or how to coach. He won six premierships, played nearly 300 games, played Origin and for Australia. For the armchair critics to say he doesn’t know footy or how to coach, I’m not sure there’s much more he can do. He’s a winner.”
Sydney Morning Herald