‘I couldn’t turn my back on Lions’

Warren Whiteley says ruling himself out of contention for the Blitzboks’ Olympic squad was one of the toughest decisions he’s had to make in his career, writes CRAIG LEWIS in Stellenbosch.

Whiteley has been a key member of the Blitzboks squad and was expected to be a strong contender to head to the Rio Games in August, but after careful consideration, the Lions eighthman opted to focus on 15s.

His outstanding form as captain of the high-flying Lions side in Super Rugby has seen him deservedly earn inclusion in the Bok squad for the June Test series against Ireland, where he will provide stiff competition for the No 8 jersey.

Although Whiteley appears to have reaped the rewards for his commitment to the Lions and the 15-man game, he admits it had not been easy to turn down the opportunity to make himself available to the Blitzboks.

‘It was probably the most difficult decision of my career. [Blitzboks] Coach Neil [Powell] and I spoke on numerous occasions about it. It’s still difficult for me, it’s not something I wanted to do [opt out of sevens consideration], but it’s just that I couldn’t do both considering the role I have at the Lions. I didn’t want to feel like I was turning my back on the team that I have played for and fought for over the past few years. I didn’t want to turn my back and make a selfish decision.

'Having said that, I can’t lie and say there isn’t a part of me that wants to go to the Olympics, of course I do. It would be something special, but it’s just not possible with the timing,’ he added. ‘They [the Blitzboks] are an amazing group and there’s an incredible culture there, I have so much respect for them. However, I feel I have a job to do at the Lions, who have done so much for me, while I think every person is determined to positively contribute if they get an opportunity with the Springboks.'

With Whiteley having led the Lions through a highly successful Super Rugby campaign during the first half of the year, there have been rave reviews about the ambitious style of play that the Johannesburg-based side has successfully embraced.

The loose forward said he had no doubt that there were players in South African rugby equipped to employ that brand of rugby, but he reiterated that it took time and self-belief to get it right.

‘For us at the Lions, it did take a while to hone how we wanted to play. What was really important was to have that belief in the system and the style of rugby we wanted to play. You need to get the buy-in from all the players, and there will be mistakes along the way, but you have to believe in what you’re doing and stick to that. Then the improvement and better decision-making will come.

‘Certainly from a Bok perspective, though, you also don’t want to veer away from the traditional strengths such as strong set pieces, dominating the contact zone and being physical. But we do have skill-based players with fantastic talent, and we need to utilise that as well, and establish that balance,’ he added.

Ahead of next Saturday’s first Test of the season against Ireland, Whiteley said a large focus for the Boks this week had been about ensuring they trained precisely and at high intensity.

‘A lot of what we’ve done this week has been to focus on getting the details right, but also training with intensity, and we’ve really picked that up over the past couple of days. We’ve looked at the style of rugby we want to play and I think it’s been a good start to our preparations.'

Photo: Anne Laing/HSM Images

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Craig Lewis