Sport

Daily Maverick’s SA rugby player of the year: Willem Alberts

By Ken Borland 22 December 2013

The South African rugby team speaks often of their pride in playing for the Springbok jersey and there is one player whose jersey must be triple-pleated, given the sheer physical presence he brings to the team. Willem Alberts could be forgiven for bursting out of his top occasionally, not just because he clearly plays with such pride, but also because he is an imposing physical specimen whose upper body strength is formidable. By KEN BORLAND

In choosing my Springbok player of the year, I am forced to disagree with the official nominations of Jean de Villiers, Bismarck du Plessis, Eben Etzebeth, Willie le Roux and Duane Vermeulen. That’s because, in my estimation, the player that Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer is most loath to go into battle without is Alberts.

The 1.92m, 120kg Alberts plays with the brute force that Meyer loves because it’s the sort of weapon that wins the battle of the gain-line, which the coach believes is the crucial contest in modern-day Test rugby.

Test rugby used to be decided by the tight fives and their efforts in scrums and lineouts, but phase play and the need for quick ball to penetrate much-improved defensive systems in the professional era means it is the collisions which are most crucial these days.

And there is no greater force when it comes to collisions than Willem Alberts.

When the 29-year-old crashes into the opposition, whether with ball in hand or tackling, it’s enough for spectators to want to put helmets on and he is the main provider of momentum and stopper of the opposition go-forward in the Springbok team.

Once Alberts had recovered from the injury niggles that hampered his SuperRugby season and saw him miss the first two Tests of the year, against Italy and Scotland, he played in every Test thereafter.

And the human battering ram often did it when he was under an injury cloud. Such was his value in Meyer’s eyes, that he would name Alberts in the starting XV and allow him to prove his fitness on the eve of the game.

For such a big man, Alberts also has a high work rate and his tackle count was usually amongst the highest in the team; and a tackle from Alberts is generally a bone-jarring experience that perhaps should count as double compared to some tackles! (Yes, I mean those by fly-halves).

Alberts played a key role in a top-class loose trio – there is a school of thought that it is the best in the world – and Meyer knew he could rely on the man known as “The Bone Collector” to dovetail superbly with Francois Louw and Duane Vermeulen.

The latter is a worthy nominee for player of the year after an outstanding season as well. Vermeulen is hot on the heels of Alberts when it comes to physicality and he was also a major force on the ground.

The other huge reason the Springboks are on the right path to really challenging world champions New Zealand has been the captaincy and general play of Jean de Villiers.

His composure, defensive steel and eye for an attacking opportunity at inside centre have been brilliant and he has been named on several influential publications’ World XVs this year.

Bismarck du Plessis has also had his moments as the most destructive rugby player on the planet, while Etzebeth is an immense talent and he probably owes his nomination more to his potential than his actual performance this year.

Le Roux can thank his popularity amongst the general public – his skills are exhilarating – for his nod and, while he has only just begun to cement his place in the Springbok team, there’s no doubt he would be a worthy Newcomer of the Year.

And, in case anyone thinks I’m being too parochial, here are some glowing references for our Springbok stars from a website based in that country we all love to hate, Australia:

The Herald Sun said of Jean de Villiers: “The veteran centre has risen to a new level since taking over the Springbok captaincy and provides a mixture of power and skill in midfield. A strong defender, De Villiers is the perfect man to go head to head with All Blacks weapon Ma’a Nonu.”

Duane Vermeulen: “The Stormers star has only been on the Test scene for a couple of years but he has impressed at the back of a typically powerful Springboks pack. It would be an epic challenge up against arguably the number one player in the world right now, All Blacks eighthman Kieran Read, but Vermeulen has already shown he has the skill and engine to match it with the best.”

Eben Etzebeth: “The latest in a long line of giant locks to roll off the Springbok production line, Etzebeth brings, unsurprisingly, plenty of power and aggression to whichever forward pack he lines up for. Still only 22, the 203cm, 123kg Stormers star never takes a backward step and seems to rise to every challenge put in front of him.”

Bismarck du Plessis: “Just the man you want to lead from the front, the brutal Du Plessis has been smashing Test packs apart since 2007. A ferocious defender – just ask All Black Dan Carter – the Sharks hard man is just as damaging with the ball in hand, as he showed when he barged through Wales’ defence … in a typical barnstorming run.” DM

Photo: Willem Alberts breaks through the Welsh defence during the international rugby union match at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, November 9, 2013. (REUTERS/Rebecca Naden).

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