Leader of the pack

Warren Whiteley has impressed as a captain and player for the Lions, writes BRENTON CHELIN.

When Lions coach Johan Ackermann was tasked with finding a new captain after JC Janse van Rensburg’s move to France, there were few experienced campaigners to pick from. The union, which was set to return to the Super Rugby fray after a year in the wilderness, was going through a transitional period and sorely lacked experience at the highest levels. Ackermann knew it was no easy task that lay ahead, and he would need to find a leader who could inspire his young and inexperienced side, somebody to build a team around. He opted for Warren Whiteley, the Durban-born No 8 with a bottomless fuel tank.

Ackermann intimates that it was an easy decision to make, despite Whiteley’s apparent lack of experience.

‘I knew I had some experienced players, but in Warren there were a couple of things that stood out. First was his work ethic on and off the field – he’s one of those guys who never stops working. His way of thinking about the game was also a factor. He does a lot of analysing, constantly thinking about areas where he and the team can improve.

‘Ultimately, though, it came down to who he is and what he stands for. He’s an honest and open guy, calm under pressure, well-spoken in English and Afrikaans and well-liked among the group.’

The bright lights of Johannesburg are far from the rugby fields of the Bluff in Durban, where Whiteley grew up and got his first taste of the game. What hasn’t changed is the boundless energy he first exhibited playing for Harlequins Rugby Club and Laerskool Dirkie Uys in South Durban.

Ian Adendorff was his coach at Harlequins and he remembers Whiteley clearly.

‘He’s one of those players who was born with stamina. He would never stop. He would also get into the smallest little cracks and wriggle his way out.’

Whiteley was playing in the backline at the time, but Adendorff soon switched him to flank.

‘He was like a rash. He would be at almost every ruck and maul. Wherever the ball was, he was, so he instinctively played to the ball. I knew he had to play flank. He was tall, he had the frame and with that sort of work rate I saw him becoming a Super Rugby player one day and maybe more.’

Adendorff’s premonition would prove correct, but not before Whiteley captained Glenwood High School to their first ever victory over Grey College, scoring a try in a historic 14-10 win for ‘The Green Machine’. He would make his provincial bow for KwaZulu-Natal at Craven Week in 2005 alongside Michael Rhodes and Pat Cilliers, both of whom play Super Rugby for the Stormers.

Whiteley remained in KwaZulu-Natal after school but he failed to break through at the Sharks and a fresh start was required.

‘The Stormers made an approach, but I decided to stay. It was important for me to help get the Lions back into Super Rugby'

‘At the time Dick Muir had just come from the Sharks to the Lions, and he approached me and asked me to come [to Joburg],’ recalls Whitely.

‘The Sharks had quality loose forwards who were young, so there wasn’t much opportunity for me. As a rugby player you have to go where you can get time on the park if you want to prove yourself as a player.’

The move to the Highveld in 2009 breathed fresh life into his career. In 2011 he played a role in the Lions’ Currie Cup final victory against his old side, albeit from the bench. All his hard work threatened to be undone, though, after the Lions’ relegation from Super Rugby the following season.

‘The Stormers made an approach during that season,’ Whiteley admits. ‘But I decided to stay. It was important for me to help get the Lions back into Super Rugby, and I felt I could add more value here than elsewhere.’

In the absence of Super Rugby, Whiteley decided to try his hand at sevens, joining Paul Treu’s team during the 2012-13 season. It was during this brief sojourn into the seven-man game that Whiteley realised just how far he had come, and where he still wanted to go.

‘I realised I really wanted to play for the Springboks. Until I played for the Blitzboks, I didn’t believe I was good enough. That was the first time I’d ever put on a national jersey and represented my country. Before that I had always thought about it, but I didn’t believe I could do it.’

Before the year was out he was handed the Lions captaincy, a role he has revelled in.

‘Johan Ackermann has put so much trust and faith in me and has allowed me to be the person I am, and I’m grateful for the opportunity,’ says Whiteley.

The Lions would announce their return to Super Rugby with a string of impressive performances before their form dipped on their overseas tour. Whiteley has been one constant, though, winning lineouts, making tackles across the park and inspiring those around him.

Speaking to those who know him off the field, it’s easy to see just why Ackermann opted for him as captain. There are no shortcuts to the top, Whiteley’s career path bears testimony to that. Surplus to requirements at the Sharks, he has grown immensely in his adopted hometown, where there are even murmurs of a Bok call-up.

Whiteley brushes this off, though, preferring to focus on areas he needs to improve.

‘I need to get better in the contact situation. I’m more of a linking No 8, and not traditionally the kind of player [Springbok coach] Heyneke Meyer is looking for. So that’s something I’ll be working on over the next year. As a player you have to keep on improving; you have to have that will to be better every single day.’

With an attitude like that it’s difficult to argue with Ackermann’s choice. The main aim for now is to keep the current group of players together, allowing Whiteley time to grow into his role as captain. Just where he can take this team remains to be seen. One thing is clear, though, failure won’t be for a lack of effort.

– This article first appeared in the July 2014 issue of SA Rugby magazine