JOHANNESBURG – The return to action of Warren Whiteley could not come soon enough and it is the boost the Lions desperately need to get their Super Rugby campaign back on track.
Swys de Bruin’s men are back at home after a disappointing Australasian tour which saw them win just one game out of four. They started their tour in emphatic fashion by whipping the Waratahs in Sydney but then crashed to defeats against the Reds, Hurricanes and Highlanders.
The Lions though are still on top of the South African Conference, but with just a 50 percent win record now in the competition, they hardly look like a team that is going to make the final this year - something they did in 2016 and 2017.
With four games to go in their round-robin schedule they’ll be desperate to get back to winning ways to secure that all-important home quarter-final.
And Whiteley’s return is vital to that cause.
The first choice Springbok captain has missed the majority of his team’s games after hurting his knee against the Blues way back in early March. He was supposed to captain the team on their tour but withdrew on the eve of their departure to Australia; his knee again playing up.
Whiteley has since continued his rehabilitation under the watchful eye of sports doctors and biokineticists, with De Bruin stating it is more important that the No 8 is ready to play for the Bok next month than run out for the Lions.
However, with the Test season around the corner, Bok boss Rassie Erasmus will want to see Whiteley in action, and he’s likely to get his wish in the next few rounds of Super Rugby.
The Lions have two games left before the June break - against the Brumbies in Joburg this weekend and against the Stormers in Cape Town the following week - and Whiteley is set to feature in some capacity in those outings.
And how the Lions need him in the mix.
Franco Mostert has done a decent enough job as team leader in Whiteley’s absence, but the Bok eighthman is widely regarded as an exceptional captain with something of a magic touch, while the balance of the back-row has also been lacking with Whiteley out. His line-out ability, linking game and tackle rate have also been missed.
De Bruin will be relieved to welcome back the lanky Whiteley this week as the Lions look to bounce back from three defeats on the trot on tour. Also likely to return to the fray is scrumhalf Ross Cronje who, like his captain, has missed the majority of the season because of knee and rib problems.
In his absence De Bruin has used Marco Janse van Vuren, Dillon Smit and more recently new recruit Nic Groom in the No 9 jersey. While they’ve all performed well at times, they haven’t connected with flyhalf Elton Jantjies as well as Cronje has over the last few years and that combination will hopefully be restored for the team’s run-in.
The Lions will also look to find a recognised hooker to back-up Robbie Coetzee now that they’re back in Joburg. Prop Jacques van Rooyen and flank Marnus Schoeman fulfilled the position in Dunedin at the weekend following the tour-ending injury suffered by Malcolm Marx.
The Bok No 2 will miss the two games before the June break but is expected to be back for the Lions’ final two games when they return to action at the end of next month.
Pieter Jansen of the SuperSport Challenge team is set to team up with the Super Rugby squad this week.