JOHANNESBURG – Fear not, South Africa... the Springboks are in very good hands.
New captain Warren Whiteley won’t only bring a calming influence to the team, he’ll also bring with him a belief that the Boks can be great again.
And that, more than anything, is what coach Allister Coetzee and the national team need right now: belief.
Whiteley may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but you can be sure he will give everything of himself to the Boks – like he’s done with the Lions. And no one can argue he hasn’t been phenomenal as the leader of the Lions, a side that were in the doldrums just five years ago.
Former national captain Corné Krige said this week Coetzee had got it spot-on by appointing the 29-year-old as the new Bok leader. “Who are the best team in South Africa? Who is leading that team?” asked Krige.
“You know what makes him the right guy... when no one backed the Lions, Whiteley and the players backed themselves. When you go through those tough times (relegated from Super Rugby in 2012, and having to play off against the Kings in 2013), no one believes in you... the only person you can then trust and believe in is yourself. That is how the Lions turned things around, and that confidence will be brought into the Bok squad.”
Indeed, just days before the Lions faced the Crusaders in the Super Rugby semi-finals at Ellis Park last year, Whiteley said: “It was coach Akkies (Johan Ackermann) who told us to believe in his plan when he took over in 2012. He told us to believe in the guys next to us, and we did.
“What we went through to get here is down to the belief we had in our coach, our systems and in each other.”
Whiteley’s rise to the top of Bok rugby is a real fairytale.
He went to a school – Glenwood in Durban – that wasn’t renowned for its rugby and played mainly in the backs because he “loved running with the ball”, but at Under-16 level was persuaded by his then-coach Ian Adendorff (rugby player Shaun Adendorff’s dad) to consider playing flank.
“I played for the B side and he said I had great potential. He said I had a great engine and work-rate and while I battled initially, I worked hard and eventually I made the first team. I wasn’t a great player, I worked hard and made a lot of tackles,” he said in an interview last year. So nothing much has changed... he still works hard and makes plenty of tackles.
It was then off to university in Potchefstroom, but that didn’t work out as he never got a proper chance and started doubting himself. “My dad still backed me, and I returned to Natal and joined the Sharks Academy. It was a dream to join them; I was a Sharks man through and through.
“My dad said I had three years to get myself a contract or I had to go study full-time. Swys de Bruin (the current Lions attack coach) was my coach at that stage and I was in and out of teams, Under-21s and the Wildebeest. Eventually I got released, by Rudolf Straeuli (the current Lions CEO), who was then in charge of the Sharks.
“He said there was no budget for more loosies, they already had the likes of Keegan Daniel, Ryan Kankowski, Willem Alberts, Jean Deysel and others on their books. There just wasn’t space for a youngster like me, and I accepted that.”
Whiteley didn’t give up on his dream of playing professional rugby. He packed his bags in 2009 and headed to the Eastern Cape, where he turned out for the Elephants in the First Division. Then came the call that would change everything.
“Dick Muir phoned me. He said he was joining the Lions and wanted to know if I’d be interested in moving up to Joburg. He said he’d give me a proper chance. He said he always rated me as a player (from my Sharks days).
“So I made the move... I had nothing to lose. But it was a big step as never would I have imagined I’d turn out for the Lions, I never dreamed I’d ever play for them. If it wasn’t the Sharks, it would have been Western Province, the Cheetahs or the Bulls. I just never felt any connection to the Lions.”
But, he says, his dad taught him from a young age to grab every opportunity when it comes your way. “It’s funny how things work out... my parents were living in Joburg at the time after moving up from Natal, so I moved in with them. What a blessing that was.”
A hamstring injury hampered his progress at the Lions, and he couldn’t even make the Vodacom Cup squad in 2010. He turned out for Pirates on the odd occasion and then in 2011, when John Mitchell replaced Muir as head coach, he got a fresh start.
“I made the Currie Cup squad, but played behind Jonathan Mokuena and then-captain Josh Strauss... and had to play on the flank. But that was the start really.”
Former Lions loose forward and 2007 World Cup-winning flank Wikus van Heerden remembers Whiteley’s rise up the ladder.
“When he was just making his way in the team, towards the end of my career in 2011, no one knew much about him. He was new in the set-up, but a few things stood out,” said Van Heerden. “He was extremely fit and dedicated to training.
“I remember John Mitchell worked us hard, he made us run 400 metres again and again, and every time Warren was out in front, he even beat the backs. He was always in unbelievable condition.”
But there was more to him than that. “He was a youngster at that stage, a newbie, but you could see he was more mature than the other young guys, he had a smart head on his shoulders. He was professional in everything he did, and his work ethic was outstanding. I’m not at all surprised he’s now the Springbok captain.”
Whiteley says he learned a lot from Mitchell. “He was tough and honest, technically brilliant. It was tough at times under him, but I grew a lot too.”
The Lions won the Currie Cup in 2011 (with Whiteley on the bench in the No 18 jersey) under Mitchell, but they struggled again in Super Rugby in 2012, and the players had had enough of their task master and stood up to him, forcing him out of the Lions.
It was then Johan Ackermann’s turn – and what a story it has been over the last few years. “Coach Akkies made us believe in ourselves, he made us love rugby again, he made us play for each other and the union. We missed out in 2013, but we managed to slowly build a team that won the Currie Cup and is now a force in Super Rugby,” said Whiteley in the latter stages of Super Rugby last season.
Ackermann says appointing Whiteley as his captain when he took over from Mitchell was a no-brainer. “He just had it. He’s a real people’s person and so humble. Just the person he is... he has grown so much as a captain and as a man in the last few years, I am so pleased for him.
“He is a calm individual who has time for his players, the management, the administrators... he leads by example, he is passionate. And I know he won’t let anyone down. Also, remember the hard and tough route he’s had to take to get here. Nothing came easy, and that’s why he’s the person he is today.”
Fear not South Africa; if there is anyone who epitomises what is possible through hard work and belief, it is Whiteley. He will make sure the Boks believe anything is possible and everything is achievable. It’s just who he is.