The Lions have shown what can be achieved with the right attitude, writes MARK KEOHANE in Business Day.
The success story in the 2014 South African rugby season did not play out in Pretoria this past weekend. Conditions didn’t allow for much Springbok reflection but the good news was plentiful 50km down the road at Ellis Park.
The Lions, in the early stages of the Currie Cup, have been sensational, and their captain Warren Whiteley has won reward for leading a renaissance within the province.
Whiteley has traveled with the Springboks to Argentina this week and should continue to add to the impressive Bok culture for the remainder of the Rugby Championship.
Whiteley was a standout player for the Lions in their return to Super Rugby. He also played an influential role in South Africa beating New Zealand to win Commonwealth gold in Glasgow.
And on Saturday, Whiteley finally got the national recognition when Bok regular Willem Alberts was withdrawn because of injury. Whiteley’s response to the national news was to lead the Lions on a nine-try rampage of the EP Kings at Ellis Park.
The Lions, in their final Super Rugby match of the year, put 60 points past a Cheetahs team that included seven current Springboks.
His exciting brand of Lions then thumped the Bulls in the Currie Cup opener and on Saturday showed their class against a team whose performance has failed to match the hype associated with their return to the Currie Cup’s Premier Division.
The Kings have struggled and they will continue to struggle this season. Luke Watson is a class act in an otherwise mix and match of Neville Nobodys.
The Kings, since beating the Lions at Ellis Park in the 2013 Super Rugby promotion-relegation match, have regressed. The impressive director of rugby Alan Solomons left for Edinburgh after five years of restoring rugby integrity to the province. The Kings, under Solomons and New Zealand head coach Matt Sexton, played with intelligence, heart and ambition. They were well coached and competitive.
A year on they are a mess in their rugby return. The core of the squad Solomons entrusted with the historical 2013 Super Rugby debut season have left and the replacements are woefully inferior. Similarly the inexperienced coaching staff led by former All Blacks flyhalf Carlos Spencer, who was appointed without ever having coached a professional team.
Spencer was a fine attacking player and spent a couple of seasons as the Lions backline coach and assistant to former All Blacks coach John Mitchell. But he lacks in gravitas as a head coach and his team this season is a reflection of this. The Kings, lauded for their achievements in the early part of the 2013 Super Rugby season, need to do the soul searching that was forced on the Lions when they were relegated from Super Rugby at the end of 2012.
Lions coach Johan Ackermann revelled in taking a team of youngsters and giving them a growl.
Whiteley was Ackermann’s choice to inspire the Lions and the KwaZulu-Natal native has been exceptional in improving the Lions and his own standing within the South African game.
Whiteley is also an example of a player who was prepared to fight within South Africa for national honours. Whiteley had overseas offers and is good enough to make a name in European club rugby. But the 26-year-old had national ambitions and committed to the Lions and to the role of playmaker and leader.
The results were not instant and Whiteley’s reward was not instant. But he kept on improving, as did the Lions, and ultimately his performance demanded recognition.
Whiteley is a skilled No 8 who doesn’t rely on imposing physical presence. This is a player schooled on the sevens circuit and it’s this type of skill that can only make the Springboks that much better.
The Springboks are a very good team, but it is players like Whiteley and Western Province loose forward Nizaam Carr who can turn the very good into exceptional.
Carr has yet to play for the Springboks but he only has to look to Whiteley’s story to know that if the form is good enough it won’t be ignored. Carr’s time will come, but for now it’s Whiteley who smiles the biggest in South African rugby this morning.
The Lions will miss their captain but they won’t be lost without him. They will continue to win in the Currie Cup and the more they win the more the national selectors will be forced to look towards Ellis Park.
The Lions, adventurous and ambitious, are an example of what can be achieved with the right attitude, and Heyneke Meyer, as Springbok coach, will be the biggest beneficiary of the Ellis Park growl that in the last month has turned into a roar.
Photo: Duif du Toit/Gallo Images