Breaking the barrier

Willem Alberts took his game to the next level during the 2013 Test season, writes JON CARDINELLI.

‘Excuse me,’ says a young lady standing in the border control queue at the OR Tambo International Airport. ‘Are you Willem Alberts? Would you mind taking a photo with me?’

The Springbok flank turns around gingerly, and manages a grotesque smile when the fan’s friend captures the moment on an iPhone. Alberts’ bruised and bloodied face tells the tale of a war staged less than 48 hours previously on the battleground of the Stade de France. His slow movements belie the brutal truth: he is a man in pain. Thus is the lot of a blindside flanker.

Alberts picked up a shoulder injury in a particularly physical encounter against Wales this past November. The Bok medical staff later concluded there would be no risk of further injury if Alberts started in subsequent matches against Scotland and France, so it was left to him to make the decision. How much pain was he willing to endure for his country? And more importantly, how badly did South Africa need the 1.91m, 120kg hulk in conditions suited to close-quarters combat?

Coach Heyneke Meyer answered both questions after the tour-defining victory against France. His statement was emphatic: Alberts had emerged as the Boks’ most valuable player of the tour, and had impressed as much with his mental tenacity as his ability to dominate the collisions.

Alberts showed Meyer exactly why he will be an asset to the Boks at the 2015 World Cup, which will be staged in similar conditions. It is in this region where the pace of the game is slower, and defences have more time to realign after each phase.

The Boks developed their attacking game this past season, but it would be foolish to ignore the fact that their traditional strengths are amplified on the slow, wet fields of the north. And it is in those conditions where a player like Alberts is in his element.

In 2012, SA Rugby magazine interviewed the Bok coach on the topic of Alberts. The Boks had just clinched the series against England after a second straight win at Ellis Park, and Meyer had duly praised a man he considered to be one of the best blindsides on the planet.

Meyer tempered that statement by declaring that as good as Alberts was in that momentum-stopper/momentum-gatherer role, the flanker was only operating at 50% of his full potential.

So has Alberts improved over the subsequent two seasons?

The stats tell a powerful story.

Alberts averaged the most tackles per game on the three-Test tour of Europe, but what was most remarkable was his efficiency in the tackle. Bok forwards coach Johann van Graan confirms that Alberts’ biggest improvement in this regard has been his timing.

His execution in terms of hitting opponents and driving them backwards has been telling. That he has maintained this high standard at the gainline is why the Boks have boasted such a formidable defensive record in recent times.

Van Graan points to Alberts’ other strengths as crucial to South Africa’s cause. He’s the team’s primary ball-carrier, the man tasked with breaching the gainline when the Boks launch from the lineout. His prowess at this set piece also hands the Boks an alternative jumping option at the back.

His natural physicality is enhanced by his mental tenacity. As Van Graan tells SA Rugby magazine, Alberts didn’t waste too much time on deciding on whether he would play in those three Tests in Europe or nurse that shoulder injury.

‘He’s a special man,’ says the Bok forwards coach of his star blindside. ‘He doesn’t speak much, but actions can speak louder than words. That being said, he is a popular guy in the team, and I’d say he [embodies] the spirit of the forwards.’

The team missed Alberts’ influence at the breakdowns and collisions when he was unavailable for the Boks’ first two Tests of 2013. That latter game against Scotland was eventually won by the Boks, but it will be remembered as the day the South Africans were handed a physical lesson by their underdog opponents.

Alberts’ colossal impact was negated in that crunch Rugby Championship Test between the All Blacks and Boks at Eden Park. Bismarck du Plessis was shown a yellow card in the first half and then a red in the second, the upshot being the Boks played 48 minutes of the contest with 14 men. It would also prove significant that Alberts, one of the gainline heroes in the preceding match against Australia at Suncorp Stadium, left the field as an enforced substitution. Du Plessis’ ejection necessitated the deployment of hooker Adriaan Strauss, which in turn forced one of the loose forwards to sit out. How different that game may have been had Du Plessis and Alberts both remained on the park for the full 80 minutes.

The Boks went into the final match of that tournament needing a four-try bonus point, as well as a win, to clinch the Rugby Championship. With the aim of realising that ambitious goal, they altered their game plan to play at a higher tempo.

It was an approach that did not suit Alberts’ strengths. Again, the game plan of the Boks may have been very different had they simply needed a win at Ellis Park to clinch the title.

While the Boks have proved that they can vary their style of play, Meyer is mindful of the fact that the next World Cup will be played on the wet and soft pitches of England. He will select players suited to the conditions and to a more direct approach, and in this respect, there isn’t a player better equipped for the task than Willem Alberts.

– This article first appeared in the January-February issue of SA Rugby magazine

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Jon Cardinelli