Cape Town - In an exclusive
interview, Lions captain WARREN WHITELEY
discusses the Lions’ attacking evolution, his dream of captaining the
Springboks in the future and the local derby at Ellis Park on Friday night.
Sport24 asked: The last time
that the Lions (then the Cats) qualified for the Super Rugby playoffs was in
2001. What elements have come together to make this season such a resounding
Warren Whiteley: It’s
definitely not just this season. Over the last three years we have been
building up to reach this point. Having the same players together for a number
of years and getting better at what we do has been key. This season, every
single player that has been afforded an opportunity or been asked to perform
has really put his hand up. The spirit is fantastic in the camp at the moment
and while we have had a few niggles this season, it hasn’t slowed down our
momentum and the confidence within the group. The fact that we have coped with
injury setbacks speaks to the depth that we have grown at the union. Being successful
in Super Rugby really is all about a squad effort.
Sport24 asked: Why do you feel strongly that no
individual can be recognised without the team?
Warren Whiteley: Rugby is
a team sport and there is no way that you can achieve without the men alongside
you. In this sport, you cannot do it alone and therefore no individual can be
recognised without the team. For us at the Lions, it’s never been about the
individual and has always been about the team. As such, we don’t rely on
specific individuals, but rather the unit. We are a team and play as a team. In
modern professional sport it’s challenging to be in an ego-free environment. And
especially so when you start achieving, but over the last few years we have
worked hard on the person. The All Blacks have a motto: “Better people make
better All Blacks.” And, at the Lions, we also believe in that mantra. We work
tirelessly on ourselves as people and we don’t veer away from asking the tough
questions of ourselves and each other. We discuss the challenges that we might
face and have an open policy in our squad when it comes to communication. I believe
that if you develop as a person, it will ultimately reflect in your performance
as an individual and as a collective.
Sport24 asked: All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has said:
“Worry is a wasted emotion.” How have the Lions addressed the fear of failure
and been able to play the game with a sense of freedom?
Warren Whiteley: We all
have fear inside of us, that is a given, but it’s about overcoming that fear.
Because we spend so much time talking about the pressures we are set to face on
game day, in real time we can make the right decisions and react accordingly.
Obviously in the past it was more difficult to do, but as you develop as a side
and gain more experience, you naturally start making better decisions. You
can’t say that their isn’t pressure or a fear of failure, that feeling will
always be there, but being able to overcome that is really important. In terms
of errors, you can’t fix a mistake you make during the game, but you can
actually rectify the situation as in your reaction to the mistake. At the
Lions, we have calls that we make when an error is committed. For instance,
when a player knocks the ball on we will shout, “Next job”. We have been
employing the policy for a number of years now. Everyone knows that system and
is aware of the trigger words that we make use of.
Sport24 asked: The Lions’ attack has evolved. What
impact has backs coach Swys de Bruin made?
Warren Whiteley: Coach
Swys has had a huge impact. He’s a fantastic individual and someone that is so
passionate about the game. He has taken our attack from strength to strength.
Coach Akkies (John Ackermann) had a vision in terms of how he wanted us to play
and was initially influenced by John Mitchell. But when Swys came to the Lions,
he implemented some new elements to our attack. He has been instrumental in the
way that we attack and we train his running lines weekly. For me, he is a
visionary when it comes to rugby. He sees things differently, is always up for
something new and has a trick up his sleeve. He keeps us on our toes as players
and has been unbelievable for the union. We are very fortunate to have him
within our camp and he keeps challenging us as players. I must also mention JP
Ferreira. While he is our defence coach, he also works on our attack from
kick-offs. And credit must also go to our conditioning coach because we
wouldn’t be able to attack like we do if we weren’t suitably conditioned. Holistically,
our coaches make a great team unit and they work together in terms of the way
we want to play. They all work in tandem and that synergy certainly rubs off on
us as players. We can have a go, back ourselves and really trust our instincts
as players. We are afforded the freedom to express ourselves and that is very
rewarding for us players.
Sport24 asked: What do you make of the comparisons the
Lions have drawn with the Kiwi sides?
Warren Whiteley: As South
Africans we have been used to a certain brand of rugby, but you can’t say that South
African teams are incapable of passing between backs and forwards. I believe
all our sides can do that, and if you go watch schoolboy rugby you will see a
forward running and passing. As South African rugby players, I feel we all have
the talent to be able to play the style of rugby we have honed at the Lions.
However, we also have to be honest and admit that New Zealand is the benchmark
at the moment in world rugby. Of benefit to them is that they play a similar
style of rugby across the board. All their Super Rugby franchise employ a
similar style of play and ultimately, when they get chosen for national duty,
it makes it a lot easier to implement that brand. The All Blacks are the
front-runners at present. However, I maintain that we have the talent and
playing personnel in South Africa in order to narrow the gap and definitely
surpass them in the near future.
Sport24 asked: You are seen as a future Springbok captain
and have been likened to Gary Teichmann, who led the national team in 36 Test
matches. What do you make of that comparison?
Warren Whiteley: It’s a
huge complement and honour to be compared to Teichmann. I originally hail from
Durban and he was a boyhood hero of mine. It’s a massive task to live up to the
player and captain he was, but I appreciate the comparison. In terms of the Springbok
captaincy, I can’t deny that I have dreamt about it. As a player, the ultimate
is to captain your team. But, for me, it’s about first proving myself at
international level and being the best player in my position before I can
captain. I’ve only started one Test match and, first and foremost, it will be
about establishing myself.
Sport24 asked: The Lions top the overall conference
system. Is your ambition to win Super Rugby?
Warren Whiteley: We can’t deny
that we dream of winning Super Rugby. However, our focus, like it has always
been, will be on the task at hand. It’s about living in the now and facing the
Kings on Friday is our next challenge. We’ve spoken about not becoming
complacent and we challenge ourselves as individuals and as a team on a weekly
basis. You always need to keep yourself in check and we work on that at all
times. The Kings draw confidence from a solid set-piece, but we’ll focus on
what we want to achieve. We are a performance-based rather than results-driven
team and will concentrate on our performance. We’ve set a standard during the
season which we need to uphold.
Jean de Villiers
Ali BacherFelipe Contepomi