JOHANNESBURG – Injured Springbok captain Warren Whiteley has heaped praise on the team’s leadership group and also singled out coach Allister Coetzee for being the driving force behind the Boks’ turnaround this season.
The Boks have hit back in 2017 with five wins on the trot – against France in a three-match series in June and twice against Argentina in the on-going Rugby Championship – after a disastrous 2016 season.
Whiteley played a big role in helping establish a new team culture but after just two Tests in June he cried off with a pelvic and groin injury, which has resulted in lock Eben Etzebeth taking charge in the last three Tests.
And it will again be up to stand-in skipper Etzebeth and the likes of Siya Kolisi, Tendai Mtawarira and Elton Jantjies to lead the way when the Boks take on Australia and New Zealand in the next fortnight in the team’s away Rugby Championship matches, starting in Perth next Saturday.
A frustrated Whiteley said yesterday he was immensely proud of what the Boks have achieved up to now.
“They’ve been incredible to watch,” he said.
“The performances have been phenomenal, and I won’t even speak about the results.
“The care, the passion, how the guys have embraced each other and celebrated tries, the fact they’re working so hard for each other; it’s brilliant.
“And then the leadership ... it’s just phenomenal how Eben has grown as a leader in the last two months. And then also Siya and Beast, with all his experience, and of course Elton, who pulls the strings at the back; I must congratulate them, they’ve been amazing to watch.”
But Whiteley also pointed to Coetzee, a man who was heavily criticised last season and who just managed to hang on to his job.
“Coach Allister deserves a lot of credit. He put the right people in place and he is really the man behind this turn-around.”
The Boks will head into this coming week’s match against Australia in upbeat mood after sweeping past Argentina in Salta the last time out; a vast improvement in their performance from previous visits to South America.
Whiteley said the Boks had shown great growth over the course of the year.
“There’s consistency in the set-pieces, the scrums and line-outs and those parts of the game are going from strength to strength,” he said.
“But the decision-making has been so good, especially at scrumhalf and 10 where tactically, I think we’ve improved a lot since last year ... the guys are making smart decisions in the pressure situations, and it’s paying off.”
But while the Boks have been good up to now the real test lies ahead, against Australia and New Zealand.
“Absolutely, the pressure situations are only going to go up in scale from now on, but we see the tougher challenges ahead of us as opportunities to grow even more,” said Whiteley.
“We’ve shown growth in each outing up to now, the players have taken on bigger responsibilities and put their hands up and we’ve got a chance to keep doing that.
“You can only improve when you face stronger opposition so we embrace the challenge.
“We’re excited, especially with Australia up this coming week; they really should have beaten the All Blacks in New Zealand.”
Whiteley, who underwent a groin operation a few weeks ago, said it is still too early to make predictions about a possible return to playing.
“It is three weeks post-op now, things have gone well, and at this stage I’m taking it one day at a time. I’m just looking forward to watching the guys on Saturdays in the coming weeks.”
The backline players of the Boks jetted out to Perth last night with the forwards going out tonight.
* Whiteley was at the function yesterday where it was announced that Land Rover had teamed up with the Boks as an associate sponsor.