And, he said yesterday, there will be little to choose between the four South African franchises, something that makes him very excited.
“It’s going to be a highly competitive year, that’s for sure,” said the star No 8, who’ll lead the Lions again this season.
“In all the countries there will be guys who’ll want to go to the World Cup later this year. And if you look at the four local franchises, look at their team sheets, you’ll see how many classy players there are and how competitive it’s going to be between those teams.
“Everyone is looking for a World Cup spot. And, to get into that team you’ve got to earn it by playing well for your franchise, you’ve got to contribute ... and then you’ll be rewarded.”
While the Lions will again start the 2019 competition as the best-looking local side having made three finals in a row, the Sharks have momentum with them having won the Currie Cup a few months ago, while the Bulls have a new-look coaching team and a number of Springboks stars in their ranks, among them new acquisitions, Duane Vermeulen and Schalk Brits. The Stormers, too, have a plethora of national players.
One of the intriguing head to head battles this year will be that of Whiteley going up against Vermeulen, both of whom will be gunning for the Bok No 8 jersey at the World Cup in Japan. The Lions man though said yesterday that the fact Vermeulen is back in South African and turning out for neighbours, the Bulls, wouldn’t impact his game anymore than usual. “It’s not like Duane being back will up my motivation because it's always up there.
“I played against him just a few years ago when he was at the Stormers, too, so I’ve gone up against him before. It’s going to be no different now. I have lots of respect for Duane, but I’m always going to be motivated (whether he’s here in SA or not).”
Whiteley said the 2019 season provided several young Lions players (and rookies across the country) with a great opportunity to make a name for themselves.
“We’ve lost some fantastic players here at the Lions in recent times (Faf de Klerk, Rohan Janse van Rensburg, Jaco Kriel, Ruan Dreyer, Jacques van Rooyen, Franco Mostert), but we’ve also got some great youngsters coming through the system. And they’ve got a chance now to show what they can do.
“On a national level, a year ago, no one knew Aphiwe Dyantyi or Sbu Nkosi... and look where they are now. They had a wonderful 2018 for the Boks... and there will be young players out there thinking they can be the next Aphiwe, thinking if they play well in Super Rugby the’ll have a chance of going to the World Cup.
“And we know that Springbok coach Rassie (Erasmus) is the type of coach who rewards hard work and form and he’s shown he’s prepared to give someone a chance if they stick up their hand.”
Whiteley is currently recovering from a minor calf strain but is expected to be fully fit and join his team-mates in training next week.
Other players on the injured list but expected to be fit when the competition gets under way in a month’s time are Dylan Smith, Ross Cronjé, Lionel Mapoe and Andries Ferreira. Cyle Brink and Len Massyn will be ready for action at a later date.@jacq_west