Whiteley’s new beginnings
- 05 Mar 2018
- More by craig
Warren Whiteley wants to make up for lost time after enduring a lengthy injury lay-off last year, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
Towards the end of last year, and unbeknown to many South African rugby fans, a significant moment slipped under the radar as Warren Whiteley made a successful return from a complicated, long-term injury.
Over the first half of 2017, Whiteley had become one of the most widely celebrated figures in South African rugby circles after leading the Lions through another successful Super Rugby campaign, before being named the 58th Springbok captain. In the week leading up to his first Test as skipper, Whiteley and his wife, Felicity, welcomed their second child, Samuel, before Whiteley led the Boks to an emphatic 37-14 win over France at Loftus in June. It was a result he described as the ‘cherry on the cake’.
However, that cake crumbled when he aggravated a niggling groin strain and had to be withdrawn from the Bok team on the eve of the third and final Test against France at Ellis Park. Whiteley went for scans and was initially expected to be sidelined for around six weeks, but it would be six months before he eventually returned to action – for his Japanese club, the NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes.
When SA Rugby magazine catches up with Whiteley, he is back at the Lions and feeling refreshed and motivated for the Super Rugby season. He reflects on that injury spell as one of the most challenging periods of his career.
‘Rugby is filled with ups and downs, and there was no better example of that than having the honour of captaining the Springboks and then, just a couple of weeks later, being out of action. What made it especially challenging is that we initially thought it was just a routine groin injury that would take a few weeks to overcome, but it turned out to be far more complicated.’
Over the first couple of months, Whiteley made little to no progress in his recovery as it became increasingly apparent the exact problem had not been pinpointed, despite the fact he had undergone an operation for a sportsman’s groin injury. Eventually, through a process of trial and error, they were finally able to identify and treat a nerve that had been affecting the muscles. Whiteley admits it was a trying time.
‘The first four months were up and down, not knowing what was wrong, and doing rehab without really getting anywhere. I saw different specialists and went for scans, and it took a long time before we eventually managed to establish what was wrong.
‘I can’t deny it was stressful. As a professional sportsman, you are always in search of progress. Of course, injuries are part of the game, but you can deal with it because you generally know what the injury is, what rehab is required and how long it’s likely to keep you out for. But over the first four months of this injury, it felt like there was zero progress. That was very difficult. Sometimes it is quite scary because you just want answers, but it was a complicated injury and I’m just grateful for the support I received, and that we were eventually able to work it out. Once we started doing the correct rehab, I started making progress quite quickly.’
During the early stages of his rehabilitation, Whiteley admits it was difficult to maintain a positive frame of mind, but he reveals how he drew inspiration from two of his Lions teammates.
‘I’ve been quite fortunate in my career not to have had many serious injuries; before this, the longest time I was out for was about 12 weeks. So it was a tremendous challenge, and watching from the sidelines is always difficult. But I was inspired by a guy like Harold Vorster, who suffered a very serious knee injury a couple of years ago.
I used to watch him every day working at his rehab and then, just as he came back, he injured his knee again. So he was practically out for two years. Dylan Smith was another guy who suffered quite a serious shoulder injury, and just as he returned from a lengthy lay-off last year he injured his shoulder again, and had to go for another op.
‘So, I just kept thinking during my injury that I really had nothing to moan about and that I just needed to continue working at my rehab, and trust that it would come right with time.’
There was a silver lining to all of this, as Whiteley was able to spend quality time with his young family, which he says were treasured moments.
‘A lot of good came out of it. It was special to spend time with my newborn son, whereas I wasn’t able to spend as much time with my first-born, Ava, when she was that age because I was touring a lot. That was a real privilege, and to be able to support my wife with two little ones, because it can be hectic.’
Towards the end of 2017, Whiteley headed to Japan to link up with the Red Hurricanes. After adding the finishing touches to his rehabilitation, the athletic No 8 featured briefly off the bench on a couple of occasions before completing two full matches.
‘It was great to get away to Japan and into a new environment,’ he reflects. ‘In a sense, you’re away from the pressure-cooker environment you face in South Africa, and I was just able to focus on my rehab and getting back to full fitness.’ Whiteley acknowledges, however, it might take some time to readjust to the rigours of Super Rugby after an extended period away. He remains an integral member of the Lions ‘family’, where the unheralded loose forward from Durban has impressively risen to prominence. Yet the 30-year-old remains as grounded as ever.
‘I’ve always believed in the importance of focusing on the present, and the first focus is to get back into the best possible condition to contribute in Super Rugby. We have had coaching changes at the Lions, but we’re going to stick to our principles, processes and values, while we still have the majority of the squad together. I’m excited about this season.’
As our interview winds down, the conversation drifts to Whiteley’s thoughts on the Springboks’ state of affairs and his ambitions on the national front. It quickly becomes clear, though, that the affable skipper is taking nothing for granted at a time when he knows there is a need to start with a clean slate.
‘We know Rassie [Erasmus] has come in as director of rugby and he has already achieved a lot as a coach, so there’s a huge amount of respect for him, but we obviously have to wait and see exactly how all the roles will pan out. For all of the players, the attention is primarily on Super Rugby. Obviously, my national ambitions are still very strong and I desperately want to play in the three-Test series against England in June, but my focus is purely on the Lions. The rest will hopefully take care of itself.’
WHITELEY ON ...
HIS LEADERSHIP STYLE
‘I’ve always been a relationship-based sort of individual, and place value in building connections with people from different backgrounds and with different opinions. I try to understand why people think or do things a certain way and try to put myself in their shoes. The challenge is to know how to get the best out of that individual, but I just love to get to know people in that way. I’ve also been fortunate to play under some great leaders at the Lions like Cobus Grobbelaar and Josh Strauss, who were both relaxed and laid-back guys. Then, at the Boks there was a captain like Jean de Villiers, who had a playful character and could connect with players from different backgrounds, but he also had a stern side when he needed to take action. I just try to be myself and to not worry about following a certain style or rule book.’
SOUTH AFRICA’S PROSPECTS IN THIS YEAR'S SUPER RUGBY TOURNAMENT
‘I think the South African franchises have what it takes to put up a really good showing and the local conference should be very competitive. Hopefully we can knock off some New Zealand and Australian sides along the way, rather than half-killing ourselves in our derbies all the time.’
SOUTH AFRICA’S PLAYER DRAIN
‘We do face a number of challenges that perhaps other leading rugby nations don’t have. We are experiencing an exodus, with the number of players going overseas far exceeding that of any other country. But I know all the players involved in South African rugby will give absolutely everything and that they want to be there, playing for the Boks.’
– This article first appeared in the March 2018 issue of SA Rugby magazine. The April 2018 issue is on sale Monday, 19 March.
Boks can target embattled England
England’s dramatic fall from grace should provide an ideal opportunity for the Springboks to make a successful start to the Rassie Erasmus era in June, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
Agaba’s out of Africa
Born in Uganda, Tim Agaba is making a name for himself in South Africa. This is his story, in his own words.
Franchises must feel transformation heat
The Springboks cannot be expected to hit SA Rugby’s transformation targets when the Super Rugby franchises are failing to do so on a regular basis, writes JON CARDINELLI.