Game of Bones

Willem Alberts has an insatiable appetite for destruction, writes JON CARDINELLI.

The legend of ‘The Bone Collector’ is more than a decade in the making. It began with a bit of schoolboy banter, a nickname given to a younger and slimmer Willem Alberts after he’d flattened not one, but two opponents during a schools match, and thus forced these players to leave the field.

The legend gathered momentum some years later when Alberts, playing for the Sharks in a Currie Cup game, hit Jaco Taute so hard the Lions fullback was left lying prone on the Ellis Park pitch and in dire need of medical attention.

But it was only in the 2010 Currie Cup final between the Sharks and Western Province that the legend finally took root in the public’s consciousness. Alberts didn’t just tackle South Africa’s quintessential hardman, Schalk Burger – he obliterated him. Subsequent scans to Burger’s chest would reveal a broken rib, confirming Alberts was a Bone Collector in a very literal sense.

Alberts talks excitedly when asked to cite his greatest hits, remembering every tackle as fondly as a wing may recall each individual try. He relishes the hits at domestic and Super Rugby levels, that one on Taute in particular, although he admits that the tackles at international level have required more of his skill and unique brand of physicality.

‘That hit on Conrad Smith in Dunedin definitely stands out,’ says Alberts. It surely must do, if Alberts himself is willing to overlook a string of match-winning defensive displays across an impressive 2013 season with the Boks.

For those who may have forgotten, a quick visit to YouTube will allow you to relive that moment during the 2012 Rugby Championship in all its bone-rattling glory. Smith prepares to attack the Bok defence, but Alberts has read the play beautifully. He proceeds to line up the All Blacks No 13, and drives in with the shoulder. The timing and ferocity of the hit knocks Smith off his feet, and the All Blacks’ momentum is compromised. 

It’s important to reiterate at this point that Alberts is not the type to dwell on past deeds. Few would argue that 2012 was an important year for his Test career, as he became a regular in that No 7 position for the first time.

He repaid Heyneke Meyer’s faith in him with a Man of the Match performance in the first Test against England in Durban, and another influential showing in the series-clinching victory in Johannesburg.

Meyer would say afterwards that while Alberts was one of the form blindside flankers on the planet, he still had some way to go before warranting comparisons with the greats. Alberts echoed his coach’s sentiments: he felt he had more to give.

The Boks improved significantly in 2013, and with the strides made on attack and defence came the rewards of an improved win record. Alberts was one of the star players during the Rugby Championship, especially in that record-breaking 38-12 victory against the Wallabies in Brisbane. He was then Meyer’s pick of the forwards on the tour to Europe in November. The Bone Collector’s voracious appetite for destruction was not even close to being sated.

'I always knew 2014 would see a fresh start for the Sharks … I could not rely on my past form, I had to lift my game'

The 30-year-old has sought to take his game to the next level in 2014. Not content with what he produced in the Boks’ convincing wins against Wales, Scotland and France last November, Alberts has played like a man with a point to prove during the early rounds of Super Rugby.

‘I had a good tour to Europe with the Boks, but I always knew 2014 would see a fresh start for the Sharks, and we had to hit the ground running,’ he says. ‘I could not rely on my past form, I had to lift my game.

‘The big change since [director of rugby] Jake White came in has been the focus on the technical aspects,’ Alberts continues. ‘The results have been there for all to see. It’s also helped that we have a good squad, as we have been hit hard by injuries. We’ve taken that in our stride and showed some fight.’ 

Like White, Meyer is another coach who has demanded more of his best players, and concerned himself with the attention to detail. It was Meyer who said, after Alberts’ seminal performance against England in 2012, that the flanker was yet to realise the full extent of his abilities.

The Bok coach’s words have proved prophetic as Alberts has continued to grow in stature over the past two seasons. The plan to unleash Willem Alberts at full potential in the 2015 World Cup is still well on track.

‘If I had to explain the improvement in my performance, I’d put it down to experience,’ says Alberts. ‘I was playing Test rugby prior to 2012, but it’s only in the past two seasons where I have played regularly and in one position. It has also helped to be playing alongside the same guys every week; there’s been continuity in selection. Myself, Francois Louw and Duane Vermeulen have built up some experience and we have grown together as a loose-forward combination.

‘Playing alongside such quality players will bring out the best in you, as well as playing against the best in the world on a regular basis. That is the opportunity I’ve enjoyed in 2012 and 2013, and I believe it’s helped me to lift my game.’

– This article first appeared in the June 2014 issue of SA Rugby magazine

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Jon Cardinelli