Willem Alberts’ return to the Springbok side will boost their gainline effort as well as their chances of winning in Buenos Aires, writes JON CARDINELLI.
21 June 2014. That was the last time Francois Louw, Alberts and Duane Vermeulen featured as the starting back-row combination for the Boks.
That loose trio was the best on the planet in 2013. Louw and Vermeulen were the among the best fetchers in world rugby. Alberts was an irrepressible bully at the gainline, as a ball-carrier and as a momentum-stalling defender. All three players offered options at the lineout.
Alberts hasn’t featured for the Boks since the second Test against Wales in Nelspruit last year. Louw has endured his own injury struggles, missing the back-end of the 2014 Rugby Championship and then the four-match tour of Europe due to a neck problem. More recently, Louw took a knock to the shoulder in the encounter against the All Blacks.
Vermeulen sustained a neck injury of his own in the latter stages of the 2015 Super Rugby tournament. He was ruled out of all five of the Boks' pre-World Cup fixtures, and will at best feature in the first pool match against Japan on 19 September.
The trio has started as a combination in 17 Tests. The Boks have won 13 of those matches, and lost four. In all 17 clashes, the Boks have proved a handful at the collisions, and fiercely competitive at the breakdowns. This in turn has provided the Boks with the front-foot ball they need to thrive.
Heyneke Meyer will hope that Louw and Vermeulen recover to feature at the coming World Cup. The Boks will need their first-choice loose trio fit and firing, particularly in the big play-off matches.
Interestingly, the Boks have never lost a Test in the northern hemisphere when these three have started in the back row (the record stands at six consecutive victories). They have been criticised at times for not being as mobile as say the All Blacks or Wallabies loose-trio unit. But on the slower, heavier pitches up north, the strengths of Louw, Alberts and Vermeulen will be maximised.
The Boks have been a less physical and ultimately less effective outfit when even one of these players have been sidelined. South Africa have managed to plug the gap on occasion at No 6 and 8, but it’s been evident that there is no substitute for an out-and-out blindside flank in the Alberts-mould.
The Boks need Alberts to make an impact in the coming Test. In the short term, he will be looking to inspire an improved physical effort against a fired up Argentine side. In the long-term, he will be aiming to set the physical tone at the World Cup itself. When Alberts has started for Meyer’s Boks (between 2012 and 2014), they’ve gone on to win 17, and lose five (a win ratio of 77%)
Alberts is fit and available, and that is great news for the Boks. One would expect Meyer to select his strongest available back row for the coming clash in Buenos Aires, namely Heinrich Brüssow, Alberts and Schalk Burger.
The pressure on Alberts to perform, and remain fit, is greater than ever. The Boks need to snap their four-game losing streak. Somehow, Alberts needs to avoid joining Louw and Vermeulen in the Boks' sick bay. Another injury will only add to Meyer’s existing loose-forward headache.
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