JOHANNESBURG - The one man, more than any other, Lions boss Swys de Bruin will want to see run out against the Sharks in their opening Super Rugby game on February 17 is No 8 Warren Whiteley.
The Lions captain will be a key figure this season following the departure last year of head coach Johan Ackermann and players Faf de Klerk and Ruan Ackermann and because of the unavailability of Ruan Combrinck, Courtnall Skosan, Jaco Kriel, Lourens Erasmus and Andries Ferreira.
Also, Julian Redelinghuys, a veteran of sorts of front row play, has been forced to retire from the game because of injury.
It’s very much a case of the Lions - back-to-back runners up in the last two years - heading into unknown territory this season, because of the changes in the coaching team and the fact a few new players will come into the reckoning over the coming months.
Whiteley, as the team’s captain and a man who’s gained plenty of experience over the years, will be the glue keeping it all together. And de Bruin knows this.
“Warren is a natural leader and he’s so crucial to this side,” said De Bruin about his No 8. “Everyone is so pleased he’s back with us and fit again ... I’m probably the happiest of everyone.”
The still first-choice Springbok skipper returned to Joburg from Japan last week where he returned to action for the Red Hurricanes after sitting out most of last year with a groin injury.
Whiteley, after being named Bok skipper before the June series against France, led the side in the first two Tests before a groin injury knocked him out of the game until December.
“He reported to training last week and you could just see that he had that spark again,” enthused De Bruin.
“I’m not going to worry about him playing any warm-up games or things like that ... he’s an experienced guy and will slot right back in when we’re ready to play again.”
Look who is back in the Lions Den, hard at work preparing for the 2018 Vodacom Super Rugby season with the rest of the Emirates Lions!
Welcome back Elton Jantjies, Ruan Combrinck, Warren Whiteley and Lionel Mapoe. Good to see you in the red and white!#LetsUnite #TheLionsWay pic.twitter.com/vNMeJdIz1D
Whiteley was one of the Lions regulars who didn’t feature in the side’s only warm-up against the Bulls at Ellis Park on Saturday, but he was an interested observer, watching from the stands. He said he was “fine” and keen to play again.
De Bruin, meanwhile, is set to name his final Super Rugby squad on Tuesday and while he recently stated he wasn’t worried about the depth in any positions - more so after seeing his union’s youngsters score a 66-22 win against a second-string Bulls side at the weekend - a mini crisis, it seems, has developed at lock.
Both Erasmus and Ferreira - regulars in the matchday squad last season - are said to be carrying injuries and are unlikely to be ready for the start of the competition, leaving De Bruin with only Franco Mostert as a seasoned second row player.
JP du Preez has also left the Lions for the Cheetahs, but at least Marvin Orie has some top-level experience behind him.
“I am not worried about our depth,” said De Bruin last week. “We’re covered in all the positions and I trust our junior systems, so we’re okay in the depth department.”