Rugby / 1 September 2019, 2:00pm / Jacques vd Westhuyzen
If everything works out the way Warren Whiteley would like it to, he’ll be back on the field for another crack at Super Rugby next year.
However, if his troublesome knee isn’t strong enough, he’s ready to swap his boots for a whistle and take up his new passion - coaching - on a full-time basis.
The popular Lions and Springbok loose-forward has accepted that all the injuries he’s endured in a fruitful playing career may finally have got the better of him.
The latest, a knee injury, kept him sidelined for most of this year and also prevented him from being considered for the Springbok 31-man squad that’s just arrived in Japan for the World Cup.
It was tough to accept he’d miss out again, as he did in 2015.
“The realisation hit a couple of weeks ago that I wouldn’t be fit enough,” said the 31-year-old this past week.
“It’s tough, flip. We did everything we could to accelerate the healing, but it didn’t work. Fortunately, I’ve been through a few challenges in my life, so it’s not all new to me.”
But when Whiteley realised he was in a race against time to be fit to be considered for the World Cup squad and wasn’t playing any rugby, he didn’t just stay at home, mope around all day and feel sorry for himself.
He opted to be pro-active and threw himself into a coaching and mentoring role at the Lions - something he said this week had helped him immensely to get over the disappointment of not being able to play and go to Japan and play in a World Cup.
“I love the coaching, it’s something I want to do, and is definitely the path I want to follow,” he said.
“Of course, I would love to play another season, but I need to make a good decision about my future. Right now I’m fully involved in the Currie Cup, but once the season is done I’m going to have a good talk with my surgeon, my specialist, some other people, and then make a call.
“I’ve got peace in my heart ... I’m relaxed about it. The coaching has helped so much in that regard, the fact that I’ve got something else to put my heart and soul and time into.
“From now until the start of next season there are about five months I’ve got to play with, to see if the knee heals and gets strong enough, and for me to make that all-important decision.”
Current stand-in Lions coach Ivan van Rooyen, who Whiteley said had been fantastic in welcoming him into the coaching structures, said the loose-forward’s contributions on the training field had been insightful.
“It’s been nice having Warren there; he’s like the bridge between the players and us, the coaching team,” said Van Rooyen.
“He still thinks like a player with the little voice that says, ‘a player sees it this way or that way’. I think the players enjoy him, he’s their voice. It’s been a good experience for him and for us.”
Whiteley said he had always enjoyed leading people, teaching players, and that his coaching gig allowed him to continue in that role.
“It’s a bit of a cliché, but you always learn more about yourself when there’s a setback, like the one I have now had.
"Again, through this I have felt I have grown stronger, mentally, and as hard as it has been, amazing things have also happened, which if I hadn’t been injured, wouldn’t have come about.
“The coaching thing has been unbelievable and I’m so grateful the Lions have allowed me to do what I’m doing now. Just to be able to contribute, help out, teach, share thoughts and ideas ... I’ve become a better person.
“My heart has always been in developing people, making them better, and I realised that in 2014 when I first captained the Lions. I learned that when I started to serve others and focused less on myself, I became a better player and person.
"There was that sense of responsibility and need to teach and guide; it’s where my heart has been the last few years.”
Whiteley said he had had a great time captaining the Lions, seeing players grow and develop, and become the best they could be, and that, in coaching, he could contribute in the same way.
“I think there’s an ever bigger opportunity for me in coaching to be that teacher; when it’s going to happen full-time I’m not sure. But there’s no doubt that’s where my future lies.”