In a career that has been interrupted by injuries – often at the worst times – Warren Whiteley cherishes every moment he has on the field. And every minute of that time is special.
The Lions captain has suffered calf, knee and groin problems in the recent past, all injuries that have forced him to the sidelines for extended periods. He has missed the business ends of the Super Rugby competition in 2016 and 2017 with injuries, or come back to play without any game-time behind him, and this year he has missed more than half of the 2018 competition.
The likeable Lions captain also had to give up the Springbok captaincy after hurting his groin after leading the team in just two Tests last season. He has yet to break back into the squad because of injury.
It is because of these setbacks that the 30-year-old is making the most of every chance he now gets to play with his friends and team-mates. And the furthest thing on his mind is getting back into the Bok team; he’s just enjoying running out for the Lions, and hoping to get the team into the final, where the Lions will hope to make it third time lucky after losing to the Hurricanes and Crusaders respectively in 2016 and 2017.
“I never take being here and playing for granted,” he said ahead of his team’s match against the Bulls at Ellis Park today. “It’s always special to play on this pitch. I’m grateful, just to play with my mates, it’s a privilege.”
He said his biggest joy is – and always has been – simply to make a contribution to the team. It’s what he has missed most about being sidelined for so long.
“I just want to contribute, do my job. I’m not trying to be the guy; I’ve never been like that and never will be. My approach is to do my job, fulfil my role ... each individual is as important as the next guy. Being injured, what I’ve missed is that I wasn’t able to contribute. In our last game, against the Sharks, even though we lost and were disappointed, it was so lekker to contribute, to be part of it ... it was so special for me. I love this game.”
And with so many of his team-mates heading out of Ellis Park at the end of the competition - to take up offers in Europe - the end of a quite stunning six-year period is also coming to an end. Former coach Johan Ackermann started building the current squad in 2012 and after a topsy-turvy start – which also saw the Lions miss out on Super Rugby in 2013 – they became the country’s best and most exciting outfit. Several Bok stars were made at the Lions and it is no secret there has been a special “brotherhood” built at the union.
Asked if he, as captain, would try to make the next few games – today’s match against the Bulls and then those the team will play in during the play-offs –extra special, Whiteley said: “Every game is special. Of course we want it to be special, but we wanted it last year, and the year before that as well.
“If you go to Joburg Stadium (where the Lions train) and look at the photos of all the players who’ve been part of this team, going back to 2014/15, look at the faces, at who has left, then you realise that little circle you’re in, that moment in the season you’re in, you must be present in that moment. Things change, people leave, so you must enjoy every moment for what it is. We wish those guys who are going well.”
These are, indeed, the end days of this current generation of Lions and maybe, just maybe, that extra special win will come before it’s all over.