Former Springbok captain Warren Whiteley has stepped into a coaching role with the Lions, writes CLINTON VAN DEN BERG in SA Rugby magazine.
There is a familiar face in theLions camp this season, butfor the first time in 10 years Warren Whiteley isn’t wearing rugby boots.
The veteran of the Lions, his body shredded by wear and tear and an uncommon run of injuries, has joined the ranks of management. Officially, he is the lineout coach; unofficially, he’ll be mucking in wherever his rugby intellect is required.
This is what it’s come to for the sanguine 32-year-old. That he’s still able to smile and simply shrug his shoulders after his body cried ‘no mas’ says much for his relentless optimism and outlook. Whiteley doesn’t dwell on his pain or what might have been; he’s reinventing himself and beginning the transition towards a new life.
As with any sportsman who believes he still has fuel in the tank, he is determined to not stop playing just yet. The shift into coaching is designed to be a staging post on his way to a return to the field, provided his body heals, and he believes he can still add value as a No 8. The odds are long but what he needs is time – away from contact and the possibility of shattering another part of his body. This is what coaching can provide a frustrated player.
The loose forward once had an unbroken run of 12 Test matches, which seems remarkable given how often fate came calling during his career. He even had a brief stint as Springbok captain, although that too was cut short by the curse of injury.
Rugby has several examples of players written off due to injury, only to return successfully – Tim Horan had a knee reconstruction and went on to be Player of the Tournament at the 1999 World Cup – but these are generally the exceptions. Rugby moves on and reputations fade.
Coaching is thus an insurance of sorts for Whiteley: it keeps him involved and offers a tenuous link to making it back.
‘It’s been quite tough,’ he said at a press briefing in Johannesburg where his appointment was confirmed. ‘I want to use this time to grow and develop as a coach … the game is my passion. That was my plan for the past few years and then after the Currie Cup last season, which I massively enjoyed, I was lucky to get the opportunity to move into coaching.’
Whiteley is soon due to undergo an MRI scan on his damaged knee, which will largely determine his prognosis. He’s suffered micro-bruising, which he says is painful and rules out even jogging.
‘The specialist can’t say whether I’ll be OK in one year or two. I want to give it time to heal. It’s just that no one can tell me how long it will take. For now I’m doing rehabilitation three times a week.’
Critically, Whiteley wants to give himself every chance to recover. ‘If there’s no progress after one year, I can confidently say I’ve done what I can. I’ll open up my next chapter.’
The former Durban schoolboy was always a classic No 8 rather than a bruiser in the manner of a Duane Vermeulen, known more for his rugby nous and sharp judgement than his car-crash approach. Whiteley’s transition into coaching is thus not unexpected, especially as he is articulate and uncomplicated and loves to solve the game’s puzzles.
‘I’ve enjoyed coaching and seeing guys develop,’ he says. ‘I love mentoring players and passing on knowledge. Some days are better than others … I sometimes feel I’d do anything to be back on the field, playing. But I get a lot of joy out of coaching; I want to make a difference.’
Whiteley likens the lineout to a game of chess, reasoning that everyone approaches it differently. His two pillars are to keep it simple and to focus on the system.
‘We like playing an exciting brand of rugby, so we try that with the lineout. It’s a great platform. It’s also nice to link with coach Neil de Bruin, who does attack, and Sean Erasmus, who does defence.
‘Lineouts are my primary job and I’m learning a lot there but I also enjoy other areas. I don’t just stick to my department; I learn from other coaches.’
Even if Whiteley has played his final match, he can look back at a satisfactory career marked by a series of particular highlights.
Six years ago, he was a member of the Blitzboks squad that won the gold medal at the Commonwealth Games in Scotland.
He was also a cornerstone of the Lions team which evolved into such a potent attacking force in recent years, leading the team to three consecutive Super Rugby finals.
Yet, if Whiteley’s contribution can be whittled down to a single game, to when he demonstrated his full plumage, it would surely be in Wellington in 2018 when the Springboks upset the All Blacks 36-34, their first win in New Zealand in nine years. He was at No 8 that day and played with a rare freedom and flamboyance that revealed what he could do when fully fit.
His final Springbok outing came that same year when he was part of the squad that beat France in Paris. Although the Whiteley-Vermeulen duel was a frequent debate among fans, a knee injury sustained in a match against the Chiefs last April was the beginning of the end. The Lions man faded quickly from the discussion.
He was nothing if not consistent in his run of rotten luck. After his appointment as Bok captain in 2017, Whiteley played two Tests and then injured his groin, sidelining him for six months and ruling him out of the Rugby Championship and the end-of-year tour. He came back, only to injure his knee in 2018.
Predictably, perhaps, he was back in hospital early last year, having suffered a serious injury against the Stormers. Then followed the knee injury, which ended his Super Rugby participation. Recovery was slow and ultimately cost him any chance of cracking the World Cup squad.
For all the disappointment, the planets had aligned for Siya Kolisi, who inherited the Springbok captaincy after Whiteley’s 2017 injury. He was confirmed for the World Cup job and duly anointed as South African rugby’s all-conquering new hero.
Whiteley endured much of the Allister Coetzee era and was never less than gracious and worldly in his manner and approach. For all his wonderful skills – he was blessed with soft hands and creative instincts – it was his understated leadership that ultimately stood out. The Lions always played better with him at the helm.
He hasn’t left the game on his terms, but there’s a doggedness about him that suggests his mercurial rugby story isn’t quite over. Warren Whiteley hasn’t yet left the building.
FOR THE RECORD
Senior career representation: Sharks XV, Mighty Elephants, Golden Lions XV, Golden Lions, Lions, Red Hurricanes (Japan), SA Sevens,
First Test: vs Australia in Perth, September 2014 (off the bench)
First Test start: Sixth outing, in the third Test against Ireland in June 2016
Captaincy: In June 2017 Whiteley was named the 58th captain of the Springboks. He led the Boks to a Test sweep against France at home
Final Test played: His 23rd; against France in November 2018
Test record: Nine wins, 14 defeats