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Willem Alberts of the Lions wins possession during the United Rugby Championship match against Cardiff at Ellis Park. Picture: Sydney Seshibedi/Gallo Images
Willem Alberts of the Lions wins possession during the United Rugby Championship match against Cardiff at Ellis Park. Picture: Sydney Seshibedi/Gallo Images

In an age conscious world many approach their 40th birthday with a little dread, content for the moment to pass in the long grass.

Willem Alberts, though mostly taciturn and private, was deprived that right. The enduring utility forward had to delay blowing out 40 candles and saved his breath for Ellis Park with its manicured turf and blinding floodlights.

His landmark birthday made him the man of the moment when the Lions played Cardiff in the United Rugby Championship, but thankfully the utility forward has learnt to take post match interviews in his stride. He has had enough practice.

Every seven years from the age of seven he has been one of the subjects of the documentary series 7Up which shines a light on the lives of people from different socio economic backgrounds. Alberts first appeared in the series’ SA edition in 1992.

Though he has a conflicting public persona Alberts has cut a larger than life online presence. He may not have an X account, but his impromptu dance routines have become an online staple. “I’ve tried playing rugby so long to get noticed, and when I don't play all this stuff happens and people get a laugh. It’s all tongue in cheek stuff,” quipped the Bok flank in 2014.

“I like humour and cracking jokes. The dance is called ‘Snakes on a plane’ which one of my friends came up with. We always do it at weddings and birthday parties and when we hang out alone.

“I don’t like to be in the public eye too much. Besides I don’t know if people really want to know whether I’m eating a steak or not.

“I'm more private. It takes up too much time. I’m too busy with my family and when I have down time I don’t necessarily set it aside for my phone.”

Alberts may have played his last Test in 2016, but he occasionally parachutes back into public consciousness with an early morning dance routine, usually in a gym.

His shuffles aren’t confined to the gym. He once captained the Boks against the Proteas in the T20 Nelson Mandela Legacy Cup at the Wanderers and played a man of the match cameo. And yes, he did dance down the wicket with telling effect. His celebratory jive when he cleared the boundary won him more fans.

But when Alberts decides to step away from the game his legacy will have little to do with his quickstep, or indeed side step. He was one of the most rampaging, chest-out Bok loose forwards of the modern era, while his confrontational stance in defence caught ball carriers aback.

At schoolboy level he flattened two opponents in a match resulting in fractures for both. It earned him the moniker “Bone Collector” and ball carriers have since been wary of his whereabouts.

Few had the ability to bust the gainline as Alberts in his pomp.

The Springboks’ prospects of winning a Test was greatly enhanced with the blindside flank in the team. In his first 36 Tests the Boks only lost seven. He scored tries in each of his first three Tests, but only four more across the next 40.

He concluded his Test career with the Boks in a slump and ended with 30 wins from 43 Tests. His final Test was against Italy when the Boks delivered everything but an oil painting in their defeat in Florence.

Alberts returned to Stade Francais in Paris before returning to the Lions in 2020, the franchise where he launched his career in 2005.

Lions coach at the time Eugene Eloff recalls how he got involved.

“I watched him as a schoolboy at Monnas [Monument High] and was keen for him to join the Lions. I heard he was offered a cricket bursary at Tukkies and left it at that.”

While vacationing in Margate he bumped into an increasingly barrel chested Alberts in a mall. “I told him to get into shape and a month later he pitched up and joined the Lions in tiptop shape.”

While Alberts, a keen hunter, has collected bones, those around him have held on to memories.

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