JOHANNESBURG – Lions captain and No 8 Warren Whiteley has every reason to feel that way. Right now he’s just fortunate, grateful, to make the next training session. All he’s focused on is the next game, the next opportunity to have a run, have a go; play the game he loves so much.
He’s not looking beyond Saturday’s Super Rugby semi-final against the Waratahs. That’s the only game that matters right now; it’s his everything right now. And he should know.
It’s been a hard two and a half years for the Lions captain; the man they call “Captain Fantastic”; the heartbeat of a Lions team who’re into their third straight Super Rugby semi-final.
In 2016, when they finished second on the overall log, the Lions did the business at home in the quarter-finals and the semis but had to travel to Wellington in New Zealand to take on the Hurricanes in the final. They were up against it before they’d even kicked off, the weather conditions horrendous, and Whiteley was just back from an injury that kept him out of the two previous play-off games.
Technically he was fit, but if it had not been a first ever Super Rugby final for the Lions - and Whiteley - he would probably not have taken to the field, his calf strain still bugging him.
A year on and the Lions finished top of the pile and they won through to a home final, this time against multiple champions the Crusaders. But Whiteley was injured, the groin and nerve issue that prevented him from captaining the Springboks more than just the two occasions in June keeping him out of the play-offs. Jaco Kriel took charge.
This year he hopes it will be different. The good news is that he’s made a start by playing for three weeks in succession without a hiccup following the knee problem picked up early in the season. And if all goes well,* he’ll be in charge of his team for two more Super Rugby games in 2018 - Saturday’s semi-final and next week’s final.
“I haven’t thought about it,” said Whiteley about the travails he went through in the play-off stages in 2016 and 2017.
“I know it was tough back then, being on the sidelines. It’s not easy but it’s sport; that’s life. Look at Jaco (Kriel) missing out this year, what a player he is; it’s tough.
“I’m just grateful. In this game you just don’t know. Julian (Redelinghuys) broke his neck two years ago and doesn’t play anymore. Jaco was so close to having a career-ending injury with his shoulder. He’s had to have two operations.
“You just don’t know. You just have to be grateful for every opportunity you get. You’ve got to relish these types of special moments, like this semi-final, at home, in front of your fans. It only happens so often in a career and you need to enjoy the opportunity as a team.”
Whiteley said he might reflect on his current situation, having only recently returned from injury again, in years to come, but for now was focused only on beating the Waratahs on Saturday.
“Hopefully we can make it special for a guy like Jaco (Kriel), who’s given so much to the Lions, and some other guys who are also leaving. It’s great we’re in a semi-final again and hopefully we’ll be able to produce the goods.
“Right now I’m only living in the moment, the present. I’m grateful.”
Looking ahead to the challenge that awaits, the Lions skipper said the last two years’ experience of playing in the knockout rounds would stand the team in good stead.
“I suppose what we’ve learned is to not change anything. We just have to stick to our processes and principles, throughout the week in our preparation and training sessions, everything. It’s about keeping it simple.
“Also, the fact so many of us have been in this situation before makes it 100 percent easier for me as the captain. It takes the pressure off everyone; the fact we’ve got so many leaders and experienced players now, guys who’ve been through this process before.”
Whiteley said he was especially excited about facing the Waratahs, a team he may not have expected to be coming up against in a semi-final.
“Tactically I think it’s going to be an interesting game, to see where they go, what they do. I’m excited about the challenge, to play against them.”
You can hear the excitement in Whiteley’s voice, even if he has suffered with the flu this week and has had something of a croaky throat. That, fortunately, unlike what’s gone down in the two previous campaigns, is something that won’t keep him from leading his team out this weekend.@jacq_west