Power and precision

GAVIN RICH, writing in SA Rugby magazine, says Willem Alberts offers a lot more than physicality.

There is sometimes a tendency in South African rugby for the critics to overdo it in both directions when a new player comes on to the scene. As Nick Mallett once said, too often purple prose is wasted on praise when it is premature, and this can be more dangerous than the castigation that is a by-product of the passionate support the sport enjoys.

So it wasn’t surprising that when Willem Alberts burst on to the Springbok scene last season with two crucial tries in successive matches as a replacement, there were those who wanted to be cautious.

‘For heaven’s sake, improve your rugby knowledge, you can’t just select a guy for the starting team because he finished off two try-scoring movements,’ we said to those who were queueing up to elect the big Sharks flanker as South African rugby’s most important citizen. There was some merit in the caution, as the try against Scotland was the direct result of a poor opposition throw and all Alberts had to do was catch the ball and fall over the line.

It is true that Alberts still has it all to do as an international rugby player, and back then a healthy degree of scepticism was justified. Alberts owed his place in the Springbok match day squad to the absence of Schalk Burger, who was the target of a famous Alberts trademark thumping tackle in the Currie Cup final in Durban the week before the Boks’ departure.

Alberts may not even have been a first-choice player for the Sharks in those games were it not for the injury that ruled the impressive Jean Deysel out of the Currie Cup season and which has kept him sidelined for the past eight months.

But Alberts has followed up his end-of-year tour exploits by hitting this season running, and by round six of Super Rugby it would have been hard to name any other Sharks player – with the possible exception of Bismarck du Plessis – as the franchise’s most valuable player.

Statistics don’t tell you everything there is to know about a player, but in the loss to the Chiefs, when all about him were failing, the figures that were flashed up on the screen from Hamilton made for astounding reading – 55m covered as a ball-carrier and 17 tackles made. And that was when the game was only in its third quarter.

A studied look back at the Test against Wales, where Alberts made his international debut, will also give lie to any argument that he was fortunate to be in position to score his debut try. The reality is that the Springboks were being pounded mercilessly by the Welsh before Alberts came on to the field. It was no coincidence that there was a significant momentum shift at that point.

Alberts didn’t just feature in the try-scoring movement, he was there repeatedly as a ball-carrier, bursting seemingly from nowhere on occasions to take the pass as the Bok forward surges up-field overturned a half-time deficit and won the match.

Quiet and modest, Alberts tried to deflect attention to his team-mates after the game, and on other occasions when he was interviewed on that tour he came across as one of those humble players who doesn’t want the shouting about his exploits to reverberate across the valleys. But he did understand why he is so valuable to the Sharks.

‘The key to my game is my strength in getting over the advantage line, and getting that sort of momentum is a crucial part of the Sharks’ game plan,’ he told the media. ‘Everyone likes to carry the ball, but I’m fortunate in that my attributes make me the player who is given the role of taking the ball up. It fits into the game plan, and I’m more than happy to provide that go-forward to the team. That is my role.’

But Alberts is far more than just one of those lumbering big forwards whose only strength is his physicality. Listening to Sharks coach John Plumtree talk about him, it is possible to imagine that he is referring to a new flyhalf rather than a blindside flank, as ball-carrying ability and timing feature strongly in the Kiwi’s description of the loose forward.

‘Of course, the main reason we brought Willem to Durban was because we knew how important it was to our game plan to be able to develop momentum and go-forward,’ says Plumtree. ‘He stood out for the Lions as a physical presence, and we liked what we saw. He looked a very good ball-carrier.

‘But what impressed me the most was the skill set that he had to go along with his physical attributes. He was far more than just a freakishly big loosie; he was a provincial schools cricketer, so he has great ball skills. I felt he wasn’t reaching his potential at the Lions and I sensed that he could become a much better player with a bit of work.’

As it turned out, it wasn’t just ‘a bit of work’, it was quite a lot of work that was required, and Alberts readily admitted during the end-of-year tour that it was the work ethic of his new team-mates and the expertise of the Sharks’ conditioning staff that turned his career around and started him on the path to becoming a Springbok.

‘I didn’t realise how far behind the Lions were conditioning-wise until I moved to Durban. The Sharks’ fitness trainers Mark Steele and Jimmy Wright helped me a lot,’ he says. ‘It was also highly motivating to work with so many good players who had such a professional attitude and work ethic.  Everything was positive whereas previously I had been in an environment where it was mostly negative. After that, once I had become fit, it was just about me getting an extended run so I could pick up momentum.’

Plumtree says that the need for Alberts to work hard was a big part of the discussion they had when he first met with the Sharks’ coaches to talk about a possible move.

‘He needed to understand that while we felt he had potential, he was still far from the finished product we were looking for. The problem was that before he came to us I don’t think he was even properly fit. We needed his buy-in before we would commit to him.

‘With his physical presence he has the ability to get the side across the gainline every time he touches the ball, and that makes him an amazing player to have in the team. But he needed to develop a work rate. Fortunately he delivered on his promise and worked damn hard. In Super Rugby at the moment he’s not only one of the top ball-carriers, he’s also one of the top tacklers.

‘I think that work ethic was always going to come once he moved to us because of the environment he was exposed to when he arrived. When you have other players like Bismarck du Plessis working so hard in pre-season they tend to pull the other guys along. It becomes impossible to shirk because you know if you do you will be letting your team-mates down.’

Plumtree, himself a flanker for the team that broke Natal’s Currie Cup drought back in the 1990s, is one of the foremost experts on loose-forward play in South Africa, so his opinion on what makes Alberts so effective is worth paying attention to.

‘Willem’s skill set comes from him having spent most of his early years playing flyhalf. He’ll tell you that he was a flyhalf up to about the age of 16. Those attributes that saw him play there haven’t left him.

‘But I think what is often the difference between the merely good loose forward and the great loose forward is the timing of the run on to the ball. If you are a player with good anticipation and have a natural knack for getting it right, and time your run on to the ball perfectly, then it makes you a damn difficult player for players to defend against.’

As Burger, who in many senses is the same animal when it comes to the love of physicality, discovered last October in the Currie Cup final, Alberts has something else that many of those players lauded for their skills don’t have.

‘He really likes hurting people; he puts in some massive tackles and it is great to have a player in your team with that physical edge,’ says Plumtree.

With Deysel due to return from his knee injury, it takes us back to a question that was asked before Alberts moved to Durban – why would the Sharks want a player in the Alberts mould when they already have one in Deysel? That question was partially answered by Deysel’s long absence through injury as it would probably have robbed the Sharks of any chance of winning the Currie Cup had Alberts not been on their books.

But as Plumtree explains, it was not just a case of Alberts coming to the Sharks so that he could be rotated with Deysel.

‘Jean is still struggling a bit with his knee and we aren’t expecting him back until after our first bye week [in mid-April], but when he does come back there’s nothing stopping us playing them both in the same loose trio.

‘It’s a long season and Ryan Kankowski can’t play in every game. Willem played much of his rugby for the Lions at No 8 and he likes that position. We have a nice balance to our loose forwards, with Jacques Botes and Keegan Daniel operating as the fetchers.

‘But Jean is a player who can also play in the fetcher role, he really likes attacking the ball and there could well be a role for him on the other flank in certain games.’

Regardless of where he fits in to the loose trio, or the make-up of the Sharks back row, Alberts has proved one of the most inspired buys made by the Sharks in recent years and don’t be surprised if he takes on a leadership role in the years to come.

‘He captained the Lions for a bit before he came to us and he does have natural leadership ability,’ says Plumtree. ‘We haven’t really used him in a leadership role as yet but he is one of those players who has natural onfield leading ability in that the other guys just naturally want to follow him. Bismarck is also like that, a player who sets an example that others want to follow.’

– This article first appeared in the May issue of SA Rugby magazine. The June issue will be on sale from Wednesday, 18 May.
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