Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – The Springboks took a half measure, you might say, of Warren Whiteley in their troubled 2016 season … increasingly, it looks as though investing in his fullest credentials might be a more productive course of action this year.
The mobile No 8 earned 12 of his overall 15 Test caps thus far in generous personal exposure under Allister Coetzee’s charge last year, including as many as 10 starts.
It is probably fair to say that Whiteley generally produced fair to middling performances at best in the green and gold, although he would have suffered as much as any other player did in 2016 through the uncertainty of the Bok game-plan and related infection of mediocrity and insecurity through the ranks.
But there is a crucial factor that should not be overlooked if the 29-year-old is to mount a renewed assault on the Test eighth-man jersey this time around: he was never given the dual status – something you automatically associate with him at his beloved Lions – of leader and player.
Adriaan Strauss was Bok skipper throughout the 2016 turbulence, placing Whiteley in the rare position for him of rank-and-filer, for the national cause.
The undoubtedly influential Lions captain just seems so similar to an illustrious (albeit now rather distant) predecessor in his position, Morne du Plessis, another rangy character who you always knew was a natural “Full Monty” … No 8 and captain, whether of Western Province or South Africa.
Du Plessis, like Whiteley renowned for his rugby intelligence, motivational abilities and articulate diplomatic qualities, would have almost unfailingly looked a bit of a fish out of water if not at the helm of things.
His best rugby inevitably came when he was leading -- quite literally -- from the front, something you might also brand synonymous at loftiest cricket levels with a character like Graeme Smith, the now-retired Proteas captain.
If you weren’t fielding “Biff” as both skipper and batsman, it would just have seemed such a glaring waste of his broadest skills package and persona.
So is the climate right for Whiteley to be offered the Springbok leadership mantle, in the associated hope that it might spark him to greater heights as an international player performance-wise?
I would argue that it is … or at very least may be.
Put it this way: he quite dramatically, I thought, enhanced his quest for elevated responsibility during June (the home Test series against France) as the Lions earned a landmark, thoroughly deserved Newlands Super Rugby triumph over the Stormers last weekend.
The visitors from the Highveld outwitted and outmuscled their hitherto confident and vibrant foes, and looked a supremely motivated and cohesive bunch as well.
It is well known that coach Johan Ackermann, in his final push this year in that capacity before he heads for foreign climes, has particularly healthy buy-in from his charges, but Whiteley’s role as on-field commander cannot be considered secondary in their success as competition runners-up last season, and a side extremely well set again for a major assault on the silverware in 2017.
In Saturday’s derby, Whiteley played as fulsome a role as just about any pack-mate in ensuring the Lions bossed the all-important engine room and also defended like demons as Stormers attackers constantly ran up dead-end streets.
For one more renowned for his athleticism and stepping and linking in open play, the skipper was prepared to get dirty at the coalface, as it were, putting his reasonably economical frame firmly on the line as the Lions possibly surprised the Stormers with their willingness to make gains in hard-fought, close-quarters yards at times at the expense of their customary 15-man ethic.
Whiteley made his tackles, was bothersome at the breakdown and carried spiritedly in tight space, while also playing a major, typically spring-heeled role in ensuring that the home team’s lineout possession was either poached on occasion or turned undesirably messy.
The issue of the Bok captaincy seems every bit as fluid and uncertain now – fewer than eight weeks out from the first Test against the French at Loftus – as it did when Strauss officially threw in the international towel even before the 2016 campaign was fully put out of its misery for the Boks.
There is still talk of Toulon-based heavyweight Duane Vermeulen (31 in July) taking the reins, and Francois Louw of Bath is another overseas-based, proven Test customer in with a shout if Coetzee goes a little against the grain of current policy which increasingly discourages use of foreign-resident SA rugby players for the Bok cause.
Domestically, flyhalves Pat Lambie and Handre Pollard had seemed fairly appealing choices a few weeks back, but the former is worrisomely laid low by long-term injury again and the latter, by contrast, struggling notably to hit prior personal performance highs after his own recuperation from knee surgery.
Whiteley has chosen a good time to crank up his credentials for the void …
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