Warren Whiteley followed up Commonwealth gold with a Springbok call-up, writes BRENTON CHELIN.
Success comes to those willing to work for it. Warren Whiteley is proof this old adage still rings true in modern times.
It’s been a watershed year for the Durban-born Lions captain – leading his team to their best ever Super Rugby finish, claiming Commonwealth gold, and, to top it all off, a Springbok call-up. For those who have witnessed first-hand Whiteley throwing his body around the Ellis Park turf this season with reckless abandon, it’s been clear he was destined for higher honours.
Johan Ackermann had no doubt Whiteley could do the job for the Boks, but when the call came, it surprised not only the South African rugby public, but the man himself.
‘It was a bit of a shock,’ says Whiteley of his last-minute inclusion for South Africa’s tour to Argentina. ‘My wife and I were just chilling on a Friday night [before the game against the EP Kings] and the phone rang. It was really something to receive the call from Heyneke, that meant a lot.’
Less than 24 hours later, Whiteley was leading the Lions out at Ellis Park. While he could have chosen to preserve his body, knowing that an injury would cruelly rob him of his dream, he threw himself into the match, scoring a try in a 60-19 rout of the Kings. The win lifted his side to the top of the Currie Cup log after two rounds, a position they will be hoping to retain come the conclusion of the regular season in October. For Whiteley, it was an opportunity to show his gratitude to the side that had made his Springbok ambitions a possibility.
‘I owe so much to the guys at the Lions. They are the whole reason I got selected, I really wanted to play on Saturday for them. It’s always an honour playing for the Lions and the guys performed really well.’
A plane ride to Buenos Aires followed, where he joined up with his new teammates. What made Whiteley’s selection so refreshing was that he is not a typical eighthman in South African terms. A link between forwards and backs, rather than a ball-carrying hulk, he offers the Springboks variation in the back row. His inclusion sets a welcome precedent, one where form is rewarded and versatility is valued.
'It was really something to receive the call from Heyneke, that meant a lot’
Whiteley would have to wait patiently for his chance, with Juan Smith’s return tempering any hopes of a Springbok debut against Los Pumas. He watched on as the Springboks seemed to melt in the Salta sun, scrapping their way to a 33-31 victory. He would be put through the emotional wringer upon his return to South Africa, as he was originally culled from the squad to tour Australia and New Zealand, before being reinstated after Willem Alberts was ruled out through injury.
‘It’s never nice for a player to miss out through injury, but I’m excited to get another opportunity,’ said Whiteley shortly after he got the call.
For Whiteley, it capped off a memorable month, after claiming gold with the Blitzboks at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Scotland. Having been part of the Blitzbok set-up in 2012-13, Whiteley and fellow 15-a-side player Cornal Hendricks were offered the opportunity to represent their country at a multicode event, with Bok Sevens coach Neil Powell seeking out their services a couple of weeks before the tournament.
‘He asked if I’d be interested. It was an opportunity I couldn’t say no to. To represent your country at the Commonwealth Games is extra special.’
Whiteley was utilised off the bench for much of the tournament, coming on with great effect in the final against New Zealand. Leading 12-7 late in the second half, his driving tackle on New Zealand captain DJ Forbes created a turnover for the Blitzboks. The ball was quickly recycled, before finding its way into Cecil Afrika’s hands, with the speedster going over for the match-deciding try.
It was New Zealand’s first ever defeat at the Commonwealth Games, a run stretching back to the inaugural tournament in 1998, and ensured the Blitzboks would take their place at the top of the podium.
‘It’s always a special occasion when we meet New Zealand on a rugby field. They are the benchmark, the best team in the world in both formats, and to beat them in a final is something fantastic. The last game I played for the Blitzboks before the Commonwealth Games was the Las Vegas final in 2013, where we beat them to win the tournament. I would never have thought that in my rugby career I’d win a Commonwealth gold.’
Sevens rugby has continued to grow worldwide and will make its Olympic debut in 2016. With one gold medal under the belt, might he go in search of another in Rio?
‘For any athlete, the Olympics are the pinnacle of sport. For now my focus is at the Lions. Hopefully between seasons I can get a tournament in here and there, and keep up to date with the structures.’
Having tasted success with the Blitzboks and been involved with the senior squad, Whiteley had a firm goal in sight before leaving with the Boks for their Australasian leg.
‘I definitely want to become a Springbok,’ he said, the determination bristling in his voice. ‘It was a huge honour for me to be part of the squad. They have such a fantastic culture and group of players. But I know you can never rest on your laurels. If you want to be a Springbok, you have to be the best, so I’ve just got to keep working.’
– This article first appeared in the October 2014 issue of SA Rugby magazine