Warren Whiteley’s performances during the Lions’ Australasian tour merit higher honours, writes BRENTON CHELIN.
Producing excellent loose forwards with good leadership abilities is a South African art form, like the perfect biltong or a well-made braai. It comes naturally.
Speaking to Warren Whiteley last year during his first season as Lions captain, it was clear the leadership role, and all that it entails, sat easily with him. Watching his performances during the Lions’ tour of Australasia only confirmed these impressions. Their three victories on tour – over the Blues in Albany, the Rebels in Melbourne and the Reds in Brisbane – came on the back of monumental defensive efforts, with Whiteley at the forefront.
It's the first time the Lions have won three matches on tour, joining the Bulls (2007), Stormers (2012), Cheetahs (2013) and Sharks (2014) as the other South African teams to have reached that milestone. Their opposition may find themselves on the lower rungs of the Super Rugby ladder, but the Lions still had to go out and get the job done.
In their opening tour match against the Blues, the Lions had about a quarter of territory and roughly a third of possession. They also made 178 tackles to the Blues’ 70, yet still came out on top. It was a tenacious defensive display that would become the hallmark of their tour, while Whiteley led the way with an astonishing 27 tackles.
‘Having your captain leading the tackle count galvanises the rest of the players to put their bodies on the line,’ says Lions coach Johan Ackermann. ‘Players feel so inspired when they see their captain tackle and carry the way Warren has done this season.’
The Lions’ second match, against the Crusaders, didn’t go to plan, as the hosts’ dominant scrum effectively put an end to any aspirations the Lions may have had. It was a sobering defeat after the highs of the previous week and, after falling 13-0 behind with a man in the bin early on against the Rebels, the Lions’ tour looked to be taking a turn for the worse. Whiteley knew as much, as he gathered his troops under the posts after Jonah Placid’s 11th-minute try.
‘It was important for us not to concede again before half-time,’ he says. ‘We knew there was still a lot of time left, so we needed to calm things down and start playing our game. I reminded the guys that we had been in this position before [against the Reds at Ellis Park last season], and it was important not for us to panic.’
The Lions achieved their goal of not conceding, and went into the break trailing 13-3. A Marnitz Boshoff try, converted by Elton Jantjies, brought them within striking distance and their resolute defence kept them there. Whiteley’s numbers made for impressive reading – 25 tackles and 14 carries, while he was on hand to float the pass to Lionel Mapoe for the match-winning try in the 78th minute.
‘It’s just amazing the work he gets through,’ says Ackermann. ‘He often does the job of two or three players at once, plugging the holes others have left behind. People look at him and think he’s not able to compete physically, but that’s misleading. He’s tall and he’s strong, but his biggest asset is definitely his work rate. He has the kind of influence that when he speaks, he’s backed up by his actions.’
After eight rounds of Super Rugby, Whiteley was the top tackler, having made 19 more than the next best performer, Lions teammate Warwick Tecklenburg. Whiteley was hellbent on cutting down opposition ball-carriers in their tracks, with his 98% tackling success rate the best of any player to make 30-plus tackles. Whiteley had also made two try assists, and stolen the second most lineout ball on the opposition’s throw (five).
The statistics reflect a more complete player, and one who could yet prove an asset for the Springboks in a World Cup year. While Duane Vermeulen is undoubtedly the first-choice No 8, Whiteley’s form should see him as the backup option when the Springboks’ World Cup squad is announced. It has been proved before that defence wins World Cups and, according to the stats, there’s no one better than Whiteley in that facet of play.
Whiteley’s international career consists of two substitute appearances during last season’s Rugby Championship, while he was a Bok traveller for the end-of-year tour. However, his position in the Bok set-up is far from assured. Pierre Spies is returning to fitness and form with the Bulls, and the versatility of players like Schalk Burger and Nizaam Carr is valued by Meyer.
Whiteley, and the Lions, have shown their character in the face of adversity so far this season, but they need to kick on. Two of the Lions’ early-season failures – against the Hurricanes and the Stormers – came on home turf despite them controlling territory and possession. They need to progress from a side steadfast in defence, capable of the odd counter-punch. They’re more than that. They showed that during last year’s Currie Cup campaign. Super Rugby may be another level, but it is not beyond them. They are no longer imposters at this level.
Whiteley, in his personal capacity, has shown to himself and others that he belongs. If he continues in the manner with which he has started the season, his form will be too difficult to ignore.
THEY SAID IT
‘Warren just keeps getting better and better. His defence has been superb this season, but he offers more than that. He’s a clever player, who’s good with ball in hand and a great link between forwards and backs. He’s the second best No 8 in the country at the moment. Surely Heyneke [Meyer] can find a place for him in the squad.’ – FORMER BULLS NO 8 ANTON LEONARD
‘He’s experienced quite a lot already as captain, where we’ve won and lost marginal games. The Currie Cup final was a tough experience for him, and one that has helped him grow as a leader.’ – LIONS COACH JOHAN ACKERMANN
‘I think his versatility might count in his favour when it comes to Springbok selection. South Africa is blessed to have the loose forwards we do, but he is a standout at this stage and it will be great to see him rewarded.’ – FORMER SPRINGBOK FLANK CORNÉ KRIGE
– This article first appeared in the May 2015 issue of SA Rugby magazine