Former Bok flank Willem Alberts wants to make the most of his final on-field stint with the Lions, writes CLINTON VAN DER BERG in the latest SA Rugby magazine.
Five years ago, when the 2015 World Cup wound down, Willem Alberts was satisfied that his rugby career was almost over. He’d had a 10-year first-class run dotted with highlights, including a long stint as the designated ‘heavy’ in the Springbok pack. Life had been good.
He wasn’t expecting an offer from Stade Francais but he got one and a productive five years in Paris ensued, as did a handful more Bok matches.
These days, the drive up the Champs-Elysees has been replaced by the more prosaic N1 highway to Pretoria. He’s been scurrying around, trying to find a house near his parents-in-law. He’s happier, too, to be surrounded by the familiar sights of the highveld and the creature comforts he was denied during his time overseas.
Alberts and five other Lions players, among them Jamba Ulengo and Roelof Smit, have a lift club for the regular commute between Pretoria and Johannesburg. The hulking Springbok is back where it all began, and he is determined to make it count.
He blames ageless Schalk Brits for making plus-30s a viable option, saying that his late-career burst proved that there is still room for players long in the tooth.
‘I always planned to come back,’ said the 35-year-old. ‘My heart is in South Africa, with my family and friends. Except for a couple of problems like load-shedding and crime, it’s a pretty decent place to live. I’ve lived elsewhere and it’s not really as nice … you’re always an outsider.’
France, with its attendant idiosyncrasies and je ne sais quoi, was difficult to adjust to.
‘Getting used to a new culture and a new language is challenging. You go to a restaurant, order the wrong stuff and make mistakes. People laugh at you. It’s tough sometimes, like when your child gets sick. You go to a doctor but can’t really get help,’ he says.
‘Fortunately, after a few years it became more enjoyable. France offered a healthy, safe lifestyle. I learned enough French to chat casually with someone, although I could never give a speech on television.
‘I made an effort to embrace the culture. You’re a fool if you don’t, and you quickly get pushed to the outside because the French aren’t very welcoming. They assume that you can just learn French. “We speak it, so why can’t you?”, is the attitude.’
Not unexpectedly, these cultural differences seep into French rugby too. The game is thus famous for its over-exuberance and high emotion; its sense of organised chaos.
It was a rude awakening for the earthy Afrikaans player from Johannesburg’s West Rand, more used to a pragmatic approach.
‘French rugby is very emotion-driven; it’s how they plan, prepare and play,’ he says. ‘Emotion is part of their culture and you can’t ask them to take it out. When it works, it works well. But emotion is not good for long-term success, only one-offs.’
That Gallic temperament led to a modern French revolution at Stade Francais when coach Heyneke Meyer was ousted last year. All Alberts could do was look on with consternation as the French players turned on the former Bok coach one by one.
He says that Meyer never stood a chance.
‘It became very difficult for Heyneke. He stepped into a hot spot the moment he arrived. The French had a perception of him even before he arrived.
‘In his first season, he changed things but, as he discovered, it’s difficult to butter your bread on both sides. It was difficult from the get-go. He tried to accommodate the French but it didn’t really work. The guys got sour grapes and eventually he lost the changeroom.’
Several years removed from his last Bok Test, the shemozzle against Italy in 2016, Alberts thrived and became an integral part of the Parisian team, earning his euros the hard way.
As a Bok, he doesn’t consider the Italy defeat a disappointing exit from the international stage, reasoning that he got more out of his body than he could have expected.
‘I finished 2015 with no expectations of being selected again. It was more a bonus after that. Finishing with that messy loss wasn’t ideal but to have one or two disasters in 40-odd caps means I have few regrets. I don’t feel as if I ended on a low.
‘If there had been a plan in place to choose overseas guys, like now, it would have been awesome. Although my Test career ended quietly, I’m pleased that South African rugby is in a great place again with fantastic talent.’
Having hit his mid-30s, Alberts has had to recalibrate his timeline. He’s come to terms with the sun setting on his grand romp through the game.
‘I don’t know for sure about the future,’ he said on the eve of his comeback match against the Stormers. ‘In 2014, I thought I’d be lucky to play to the end of 2015. Now I feel really good. A guy like Schalk Brits has given us veterans a lot of confidence.
‘I always felt while nearing the end at Stade Francais that I had two more seasons left in me. I want to enjoy this last bit as best as I can; maybe another 18 months or so. Hopefully my experience can be good enough.
‘I want to give back to rugby and to the Lions, to add value. I’ve spoken to [Lions CEO] Rudolf Straeuli. I don’t mind carrying tackle bags, being involved in youth programmes … I’ll help wherever I’m required.’
Inevitably, the question arises about how much more stockpiling the original ‘Bone Collector’ might manage in his dotage. He takes a few moments to summon an answer.
‘The problem with that nickname is you don’t name yourself, so there’s a cross on my back. I’m a marked man, guys want to line me up too,’ he quips. ‘I’ll do my best to put in as many big hits as I can, as I’ve always done.’
Nowadays, he spends much time pondering a life beyond rugby. Having been out of the public eye in South Africa, opportunities are less obvious. He knows he might have to hustle to create a new life for himself and his family.
‘I’ve had a lot of time to reflect,’ he says, quietly satisfied that his contribution to rugby has been significant. ‘My passion beyond rugby is for farming, agriculture and nature. I want to get involved in that. I studied a business diploma in France, a tailormade programme for rugby players, at the Toulouse Business School, so I have skills. For now, I’m a free agent looking to finish off strongly.’
The big man knows no other way.
Best book: Kampvure wat nie uitbrand nie (PJ Schoeman)
Favourite musicians: Neil Diamond, Bruce Springsteen and Jan Blohm
If you could invite three famous people to dinner, who would they be? Leon Schuster, Ernie Els and Elon Musk
Toughest opponent: Jerry Collins
Proudest rugby moments: 2010 and 2013 Currie Cup with the Sharks, Springbok debut 2010 and every Test
Favourite meal: Braaivleis
Favourite holiday destination: Bushveld , and Iceland with my wife was an amazing experience
Best movie/TV show: Sweet and Short, and any other Leon Schuster movie
Favourite sportsmen: Ernie Els and [outdoorsman] Remi Warren