JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA - JUNE 13, Willem Alberts during the South African national rugby team training session at St Stithians College on June 13, 2012 in Johannesburg, South Africa Photo by Lee Warren / Gallo Images

THEY’RE called “hits” in rugby… tackles so big and impactful they’re felt all the way into the stands and into the TV room. They’re the tackles that elicit “ooohs” and “aaahs” from the fans.

Now if there’s one man who knows how to make a “hit”, it’s Willem Alberts. Also known as the “Bone Collector”.

Where did the name come from? Apparently Alberts was said to be collecting the bones of his former teammates at the Lions after he hit fullback Jaco Taute so hard in a tackle during a Currie Cup game it left his now-Springbok teammate sprawled on the Ellis Park turf, needing medical attention.

Alberts may be one of the toughest men you’ll find on the rugby field – and one of the biggest, too – but off it you’ll discover a softly-spoken, well-mannered man who appears as if he wouldn’t hurt a fly. He readily admits something of an alter-ego comes out when he crosses the white line. “That’s what I like about rugby… it allows you to really express yourself. Isn’t the physical aspect of the game the very reason why we play it?” he asks. “I like rugby because it’s hard and physical.”

But Alberts isn’t only a bone-rattler, a man whose role it is to knock opponents back in the tackle and ensure when they get up from the turf are nursing some kind of injury. Or bruised ego. No, Alberts is much more than just a big tackler, he’s a pretty good carrier of the ball, too, and wins his fair share of line-out ball as well. In fact, according to the 28-year-old, he’s more of a carrier than a tackler.

And he says his partnership with Francois Louw and Duane Vermeulen is flourishing at the moment because all three of the Bok loose forwards bring something different to the team.

“Francois has been awesome since coming into the group and he’s just so good on the ground, making those turn-overs. Then there’s Duane, who’s really the complete all-rounder and then I like to think of myself as the big carrier, the guy who takes the ball up. I think the three of us complement each other well, the combination is really working nicely.”

Alberts made his debut in sensational fashion on the November tour of Europe in 2010, coming off the bench to score a try on debut against Wales. And, after the tour, there was no doubting Springbok rugby had yet again unearthed a gem of a player, a man who is now an integral part of Heyneke Meyer’s team. Alberts has become something of a mainstay in the squad, one of the first names on the team list, but he knows 2013 will pose new challenges.

“The current loose-trio is functioning well but next year we’re going to have Schalk Burger back, Pierre Spies back and a number of other quality flanks and eighthmen will be available,” he said. “But, because we’ve developed so nicely over the year it’s going to be tough for those guys to get back into the team. The competition for places next year is going to be immense. The selectors and the coach are going to have a big headache – but the good thing is that whoever plays for the Boks will be up for it and will be the best man for the job.”

Alberts will earn his 20th cap against England on Saturday. And while he is now one of South Africa’s biggest rugby names, it could all have been so different for the farm boy from Bronkhorstspruit. A love of cricket could have seen him wearing whites rather than green.

“I was a bit of an all-rounder at school. I played rugby with my friends, but it was in cricket that I made the quickest progress. I played first team since standard eight [at Monument in Krugersdorp] and was a middle-order batsman and bowler. At one stage I held the record for the highest limited overs score of 177 off 82 balls.

“Cricket was my first love and I also enjoyed athletics and golf. Rugby really only came later. I played in B teams mostly during my school days and in standard nine I only made the third team at Monument. I was a lock then and only in matric did I finally start showing signs of improvement. I made it into the first team in my final year and you could say everything happened pretty fast since then.”

Indeed it did. Alberts finished school, went to the University of Johannesburg and was soon being guided by former Bok loose forward Ian MacDonald. He played for UJ at U19 level and was soon featuring for the Lions at U-20 level. Then it was on to Vodacom Cup, Currie Cup and Super Rugby.

“When I was starting out I really didn’t know if I was going to make it. But then when I played under Mac and I started believing in myself. He taught me a lot and had a lot to do with my development as a player,” says Alberts. And the rest is history.

Alberts found his way down to Durban and the Sharks in 2009 and within a year he was a Springbok. He’d made a massive impact for the Sharks at all levels and is now doing the same for the national team.

He may be something of a late developer, but perhaps it’s been a blessing in disguise. At 28, he’s already learned much about the game and he appreciates every single minute he spends on the field.

“I’m really looking forward to the Test at Twickenham this weekend, but then I look forward to every Test we play. There’s not one opponent that gets me amped more than another. It’s a privilege to play for your country and I’m up for whoever is standing opposite me.”

Away from the game, Alberts enjoys hunting, fishing and playing golf and let’s not forget the beach. “I love Durban, sitting on my patio watching the sea or just taking a walk on the beach with my wife [Nicolene] and the dogs.”

At 1.91m tall and weighing a hefty 120kg, his wife will probably call him a big huggable bear. Rugby folk know him as the Bone Collector. – The Star