Lions tumult: Whiteley’s value just doubled!

    2019-04-23 12:56

    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.

    The skipper 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.

    Fuller details are in short supply at present, and of course they may be intensely personal and of no business to the public.

    The vast 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.)

    While it 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.

    In a 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.

    It had 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”.

    There have 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.

    Remember 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.

    Throughout 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.

    Now, though, 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).

    Who knows 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.

    The Lions 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.

    My suspicion 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.

    Where that 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?

    Also to 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.

    But however 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 Lions.

    He’s gone from gold to platinum in value.

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing




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