Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – The claims of Warren Roger Whiteley as Springbok captain under an imminent new regime only intensify.
And if they aren’t doing that, they should.
By my book, the inspirational Lions leader can hardly be considered a dark horse any more for the vacant portfolio – he has become a genuine candidate.
Prior reservations about Whiteley have centred far more around his suitability to a regular starting berth at No 8 than his actual captaincy credentials: many would concur that he has long been a natural in the latter department.
The understandable argument against the Durban-born competitor has been the stubbornly tight grasp on the No 8 jersey by a certain Duane Vermeulen, an indisputably world-class rugby player arguably only a short head behind Kieran Read as best on the planet in the berth.
Former Stormers skipper Vermeulen, who turns 30 in July, has publicly-expressed Bok leadership aspirations of his own, despite the obvious impediment of currently being based abroad with Toulon.
“I would give anything to lead the Springboks,” he was reported very recently by Afrikaans newspaper Rapport as saying.
Vermeulen, let’s not forget, only began his international career rather later than many believed he should have, in 2012, after that fairly fitful athletic specimen Pierre Spies hogged the No 8 spot.
He has since played in (and started each time) 35 Test matches and would clearly love to still add considerably to that tally.
The unyielding tradition for national captain, nevertheless, is that he be a home-based player, even if the trend was briefly bucked by Heyneke Meyer during RWC 2015 when he gave Suntory Goliath scrumhalf Fourie du Preez the emergency reins after jinxed first-choice captain Jean de Villiers’ further injury mishap during the group stage of the tournament.
But the veteran, almost 34-year-old No 9 has now almost certainly quit the international arena, at the very least, and probably drawn the curtain on his entire career.
A few current Boks offer options to fill the captaincy void from this year onward, although at least one attractive additional one, like Vermeulen, is firmly stationed in foreign climes – Francois Louw of Bath.
That is where someone like Whiteley enters the picture with mounting force among the locally-based candidates, a situation only enhanced by his full-blooded role as both player and leader in the Lions’ fabulous 36-32 upset of the Chiefs in their Hamilton stronghold on Saturday.
It is also, I would argue, blinkered to suggest you cannot field Whiteley and Vermeulen in the same loose trio – the latter has both the talent and perfect physical dimensions to be considered for the blindside flank role, especially as that injury-prone behemoth Willem Alberts may well have ridden off into a Bok-level sunset.
Vermeulen began his illustrious Stormers career in the No 7 shirt (given that Luke Watson was captain at the time and played primarily as eighth-man) and was seldom less than authoritative in that capacity.
Whiteley and Vermeulen are considerably different beasts from a playing-style point of view when wearing eight; the latter is a hugely combative dynamo at close quarters whereas Whiteley is the more rangy, gap-seeking type of customer roughly in the mould of a Springbok giant of yesteryear, Morne du Plessis.
But it is not as though Whiteley lacks physical relish; he always puts his body firmly on the line when necessary, but also brings a priceless element of athleticism and pace – something Bok loose trios have perhaps lacked a little in recent seasons.
Like Vermeulen, he is a fine lineout option as well as being an alert, back-tracking tackler when an opposition counter-attack is mounted, and possessor of a generally well-greased personal “motor”.
Whiteley, at 28, offers the comfort that he is probably well capable of steering the troops through to the end of another World Cup cycle – RWC 2019 in Japan – if he did earn the green-and-gold captaincy mantle.
He has three Bok caps earned between 2014 and 2015, although all as a substitute, and usually involving relatively unfamiliar, brief duty on the flank.
Apart from so clearly “having the dressing room” in the adhesive, highly-motivated Lions camp in a significant way, he sports diplomacy and public relations attributes that should not be under-appreciated – a bit like Morne du Plessis, again, and the most recent full-time Bok leader De Villiers or John Smit immediately before him.
The choice of Bok skipper, someone presumably earmarked in that capacity for four years, is not a particularly easy one.
But Whiteley is doing more than enough on all fronts to be nipping his way up the pecking order of “possibles”.
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