Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - Warren
Whiteley’s value as the most natural of captains has always been enormous to
the Lions … it can strongly be contended now that he has become the squad’s
primary “father figure” as well.
and Springbok loose forward almost automatically carries that extra mantle for
an unspecified amount of time going forward, in the light of the startling
Easter revelation that equally respected - by most accounts, anyway - head
coach Swys de Bruin has quit the travelling camp due to stress-related factors.
details are in short supply at present, and of course they may be intensely
personal and of no business to the public.
majority of both the Johannesburg-based and more widespread South African rugby
community should, and almost certainly will, wish this popular figure well in a
challenging time. (Latch me on, please.)
will be hoped that the 59-year-old’s circumstances are of such a nature that a
full resolution is possible and he can seamlessly return to a post he has
occupied with some distinction since elevating from Johan Ackermann’s deputy to
the primary coaching portfolio in Super Rugby last season, it may not be so
simple: is it an issue that could flare up again, with detrimental effects on
both De Bruin and the charges he steers?
That is a tantalising,
currently unanswered question.
What can be
said with some conviction is that the combination of Ackermann (now on the
payroll of Gloucester), De Bruin and Whiteley have been the most pivotal, rugby-specific
figures in the Lions’ rise to admirable silver medallists in the ever-gruelling
competition for each of the last three seasons.
So at this
specific point, the Lions only have one of them left in service to the
franchise, just beyond the midway point of 2019 ordinary season and with one
further Australasian tour fixture to negotiate against champions the Crusaders
this Friday: the on-field dynamo who is Whiteley.
development that now looks even more like manna from heaven, the rangy,
smart-thinking No 8 returned to fitness from a fairly lengthy layoff in time
for the weekend’s extremely gutsy 23-17 upset of the Chiefs, and commendably
managed to look as though he had never been away.
already become known beforehand that De Bruin had returned to South Africa, and
the side, fresh off successive thumping losses, genuinely seemed to go the
extra mile - quite probably emboldened and reassured by Whiteley’s presence and
just as feasibly (unless I have got my wires severely crossed on this?) “doing
it for Swys”.
been some unpalatably heavy reverses this season, which will hardly have helped
De Bruin’s wellbeing, yet the fact remains that in a wildly unpredictable year
thus far for the majority of competing teams, the Lions (five wins, four
defeats) do remain very much at the races for a playoffs berth.
that 2018 wasn’t exactly plain sailing for the Highvelders in the conference phase,
either, as they had a 9-7 win-loss ration ahead of the finals series, yet still
progressed to the Christchurch showpiece.
their SA-dominating phase stretching back to 2016 and also for the more
transitional two years prior to that, Whiteley has been the official captain,
even if the injury phenomenon has occasionally been as unkind to him as any
other celebrated player.
he effectively assumes his loftiest yet responsibility, as he is bound to be
the major rallying figure - with due respect to conditioning man and interim
head coach Ivan van Rooyen, an emerging element in his own right - in keeping
the Lions suitably motivated and match-efficient for another assault on the
hitherto narrowly elusive tournament prize.
At 31 the
kind of figure you could well imagine pushing on into coaching if he desired it
(though SuperSport ought to be interested, too, when the well-spoken and
engaging man hangs up his boots), Whiteley knows the modern Lions system and
culture better than most.
He will need
to be even more vocal, passionate and strategically astute than we already know
he is capable of being in negotiating the choppy waters of the present, and
perhaps a few days or weeks onward.
On the plus
side for the squad as a whole, a bye follows completion of the three-match tour
on Friday, so there will be decent time for a regroup in varying ways once back
in the environs of Emirates Airline Park (first home game post-tour is against
the Waratahs on May 11).
what selection hand they will play against the mighty ‘Saders? After admitting
to hoodwinking the Chiefs into believing they would sit out some big guns last
Friday, the likes of Malcolm Marx and Elton Jantjies instead played and
excelled for the visitors in the rousing win.
will not be able to pull off a cheeky con act once again this time - not unless
the Cantabrians are asleep on their feet, which is very unusual - and we do
know that heavyweight Bok hooker Marx, for one, will miss the clash in an
overdue rotational break with the national cause in mind.
is that the Lions may field close to a “Rooibokke” type of line-up (yes,
old-timers will recall them as the former Transvaal B-team) ... potentially being
prepared to take a hit, as it were, at formidable AMI Stadium by throwing
plenty of rookies at the task and cocooning a greater tally of seniors than
just Marx for a final-straight onslaught back on SA soil.
might leave Whiteley, too, is an intriguing matter if that’s the kind of route they
take: do you expose him to the risk (heaven forbid) of a fresh niggle or two
this weekend, even if this is a juncture when he probably welcomes personal
game-time for recapturing fullest sharpness?
consider, if they do put out some greenhorns on Friday, is that Whiteley could
be a vital balancer and mentor in their midst on a massively tough date.
he is deployed - or possibly even not at all - against the Crusaders, Warren
Whiteley needs to be fit and firing, both mentally and physically, for the
duration of this period of such notable uncertainty on other fronts for the
from gold to platinum in value.
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