Rugby Championship

Boks: Alberts may be at risk

2014-08-14 12:24
Willem Alberts (Gallo Images)
Cape Town - He probably seems at first glance one of the most settled figures in a Springbok side otherwise marked by certain daring, fresh-faced selections, but blindside flank Willem Alberts is under pressure to produce a rousing performance at Loftus on Saturday.

The 30-year-old Sharks favourite is back after missing the 55-6 rout of Scotland in Port Elizabeth through injury, giving the Boks the same loose trio for the Castle Rugby Championship opener against Argentina (17:00 kickoff) that began last year’s equivalent fixture at FNB Stadium - a record 73-13 outcome in favour of the host nation.

At least at this stage, the restoration of the “Bone Collector” for his 33rd cap is hardly a surprise, and still well justifiable.

The alliance of Alberts, Francois Louw and Duane Vermeulen has become a staple feature of Bok XVs even when all loosie candidates are available in the Heyneke Meyer era, and usually operates as a well-greased machine.

But if you had to pinpoint one of the trio as being most at risk of being nudged out of the starting equation, that player would probably be the hefty No 7.

One rival “wolf” has been kept from the door for the time being as Meyer, for whatever reason, resisted the temptation to involve Toulon-based, medical miracle-man Juan Smith in the match-day squad.

Nevertheless, World Cup 2007 winner Smith is at least back lurking thereabouts, and the classy, lanky customer has clearly stated his hunger to be involved in a personal third RWC campaign next year.

The designated loose forward substitute against the Pumas will be Marcell Coetzee, an ally of Alberts’s at the Sharks who was a leading light in their advance to the Super Rugby semis this year.

Coetzee is being predominantly modelled into an out and out open-sider this year, but he also still boasts plenty of qualities to make him an appealing thought at No 7, not least a quite staggering work-rate at times.

Also far from out of the mix is another seasoned marauder in Schalk Burger, currently Japan-based but available later in the Championship: he was admiringly described as “all over the park” by TV commentator and former Bok AJ Venter when he plugged the Alberts gap at blindside against Scotland recently and was at the helm of the home tackle count.

Mention of the sheer industry of characters like Coetzee and Burger is apt because it is an area where, for all his formidable physical qualities, Alberts can come up a little short at times - even while earning some rightful oohs and aahs for the odd drive-back tackle or particularly fierce carry.

Fitttingly Pretoria-born, the big flanker has an opportunity at Loftus, where the air is thin and the ball bounces or is airborne for good distances, to put the fears of some critics to rest that he loses some effectiveness when a game is played at notable pace.

This is especially relevant because Meyer has made no bones about his desire to see his side up their overall tempo if they are to disturb the long-time crown of the All Blacks this year (it is, sadly, no longer applicable to suggest the New Zealanders, for instance, can have the air stripped from their lungs at altitude; they have actually come to revel in such conditions and often outlast the Boks).

It is here that a large specimen like Alberts, in a role that increasingly requires mobility to match raw strength, runs the risk of coming under critical scrutiny.

I am among those who suspect that he comes into his own for South Africa best on heavier surfaces - like at the coast domestically, and in year-end European mud baths - where the most vital gains are so often made in centimetres rather than metres, and penalty goals earned through precious field position rather than tries can sway close contests when the elements are foul.

Make no mistake, Alberts is wonderfully geared for the November or December demands of a Millennium Stadium, Murrayfield or Twickenham, or grim June and July at Newlands, for that matter.

In such environments, there is an aura about him, a presence that can send a shudder down opposition spines.

Yet Meyer knows the culture of the Rugby Championship, played as it is these days in the promising first buds of the southern spring, remains for five- and seven-pointers to be the primary way to make decisive headway, with the All Blacks’ monopoly of the silverware very much founded on that ethic.

The situation endangers someone like Willem Alberts ... Saturday at Loftus would be a good start to allaying reservations about his ability to stay with the rest of the pack, as it were, when the pace gets searing and there is no place for passengers.


South Africa:

15 Willie le Roux, 14 Cornal Hendricks, 13 Damian de Allende, 12 Jean de Villiers (captain), 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Handre Pollard, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Willem Alberts, 6 Francois Louw, 5 Lood de Jager, 4 Bakkies Botha, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Tendai Mtawarira

Substitutes: 16 Adriaan Strauss, 17 Trevor Nyakane, 18 Frans Malherbe, 19 Eben Etzebeth, 20 Marcell Coetzee, 21 Francois Hougaard, 22 Morne Steyn, 23 Jan Serfontein


15 Joaquin Tuculet, 14 Horacio Agulla, 13 Marcelo Bosch, 12 Juan Martin Hernandez, 11 Manuel Montero, 10 Nicolas Sanchez, 9 Martin Landajo, 8 Juan Manuel Leguizamon, 7 Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, 6 Paul Matera, 5 Thomas Lavanini, 4 Mariano Galarza, 3 Ramiro Herrera 2 Agustin Creevy (captain), 1 Marcos Ayerza

Substitutes: 16 Matias Cortese, 17 Paz Lucas Noguera, 18 Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro, 19 Matias Alemanno, 20 Leonardo Senatore, 21 Thomas Cubelli, 22 Santiago Gonzalez Iglesias, 23 Lucas Gonzalez Amorosino

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing


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