Boks: Alberts to lose ground?

2013-06-11 23:00
Willem Alberts (Gallo Images)
Cape Town – Willem Alberts’s abdominal strain could just prove more costly to the player than he ever imagined it would.

The physically imposing Sharks blind-side flank was a late withdrawal after being named in the Springbok starting line-up for a supposed 21st cap in the first Test of the 2013 season against Italy last weekend.

It is history now that debutant Arno Botha of the Bulls, eight years his junior at 21, prospered noticeably against the Azzurri in Durban after his eleventh-hour call to arms – on the Sport24 scorecard he was the top-rated pack member, in fact.

There has been talk that the 119kg Alberts may well be ready for action against Scotland in the immediate follow-up for the Boks at Mbombela Stadium this weekend.

My hunch, ahead of Wednesday’s team announcement, is that the Bok PR machine will box clever by suggesting the more established customer is to be given an extra week to regain optimum fitness (though it is also possible he will find a spot on the bench against the Scots to bank a bit of comeback game time).

That way, coach Heyneke Meyer – admittedly normally partial to Alberts -- can postpone the dilemma of whether to restore the customary first-choice man in the No 7 jersey or give the livewire Botha another – extremely deserved – opportunity.

South Africa are blessed with good, new options for the blind-sider’s job in this sadly post-Juan Smith era, with Alberts having produced a handful of really storming appearances for the country, albeit mixed with some less effective and all too often injury-hampered ones, and the likes of Botha and Cheetahs find Lappies Labuschagne snapping vigorously at his heels.

Both Botha and Labuschagne, who is part of the extended Bok squad at present although he has not sampled match-day service yet, give away 15kg or thereabouts in bulk to the formidably-built “Bone Collector” but -- perhaps crucially in due course -- offer greater dynamism and mobility about the park.

The former was all restless energy and intensity against Italy, particularly in defence, whilst Labuschagne’s tackle count in Super Rugby has regularly been among the best in the competition this year.

I would argue it is becoming more and more apparent that, on some of this country’s faster, harder and drier pitches – Newlands in mid-winter would be an exception, of course – the colossal figure of Alberts is in danger of being caught slightly off the pace by this “youth revolution” developing nicely in his position.

A mud-bath at Eden Park, or snow showers at Murrayfield or Twickenham? Make no mistake, under such circumstances Alberts is a brilliant “go-to guy” for the Bok cause.

He proved as much in the northern hemisphere once more at the end of 2012, when he scored that slightly fortuitous, opportunistic yet game-swaying try against England in the narrow 16-15 win.

Alberts on the ball, a metre or so from the try-line and aided by just a bit of forward-moving momentum? There’s every chance it will be try-time ... just as he is a fantastic player to have latching onto a crash ball or at the epicentre of a concerted driving maul.

But on firm Highveld surfaces, for example, and with the Boks showing welcome signs of seeking a routinely more exciting and up-tempo attacking formula this year, someone like Botha may just prove a more effective presence at No 7.

Indeed, there is a lobby who advocate with some merit that perhaps Alberts should more regularly return to his former “SuperSub” role, where his brute strength can be useful against tiring enemy legs in the final quarter or so of contests.

Having had an injury-prone couple of years hardly helps the Sharks favourite’s quest to truly bed down in the starting blindside role in internationals: Alberts has had frequent shoulder issues, and considering his rugged, contact-based playing style, that is a bit like a helicopter carrying a reputation for faulty blades. Not ideal.

He may need his latest layoff to end pretty smartly if he is not to slip a tad in the No 7 pecking order, possibly curtailing him to horse-for-course selection in situations where his close-quarters attributes are deemed more essential ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing



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