JOHANNESBURG – It was just over two years ago that Warren Whiteley was the proudest and happiest man in South African rugby.
On May 23, 2017, he’d been named the 58th leader of the Springboks by then coach Allister Coetzee. He replaced Adriaan Strauss after the disaster of the 2016 season.
Whiteley led the Springboks in the first two Tests against France, but on the eve of his home Test as Bok captain at Ellis Park, in the third Test, he was ruled out with a groin injury. Eben Etzebeth took over as team leader for that match, on June 24, and Whiteley wouldn’t lead the Boks again.
Now, two years later, one of this country’s most inspirational and hard-working players is fighting to fulfil his Bok dream of playing at the World Cup later this year. His participation in Japan is hanging by a thread, thanks to a string of injuries that have halted his career in the last two years.
The groin injury that felled Whiteley before that third France Test in 2017 forced him out of the game for the rest of the season and last year he also missed much of the year’s big rugby. He didn’t feature in Super Rugby and didn’t face England in June as Duane Vermeulen returned and Siya Kolisi became the new Bok leader under Rassie Erasmus.
Whiteley did, however, return to action in the Rugby Championship, but then this year only played four times in Super Rugby because of a pectoral muscle injury and a knee problem.
He is expected to return to action in the Currie Cup in a few weeks’ time, but with the World Cup kicking off in three months from now he has little time or opportunity to show he must be on the Bok plane to Japan.
Will he make it, won’t he make? And, more importantly, will Erasmus be prepared to gamble on a player who’s played precious little rugby in the last two years. It doesn’t seem like it right now.
When the Bok coach named an initial group of players to train in Pretoria this week ahead of the international season, Whiteley was not among them, even though a number of other injured players were included in the squad. Here one thinks of Lood de Jager, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Eben Etzebeth, Kwagga Smith, among others.
The loose-forwards in the group are Kolisi, Smith and from overseas, Marcel Coetzee and Rynhardt Elstadt, and utility man Du Toit, who played most of his rugby at No 7 last year.
Add in the Sharks and Bulls loose-forwards – Vermeulen, Marco van Staden and the Du Preez Twins, Dan and Jean-Luc – who’re likely to join the alignment and planning group next week, and you realise Whiteley will have to produce something special in the Currie Cup or rely on someone mentioned here getting injured to force his way into the final World Cup squad.
One’s got to feel desperately sorry for the Lions captain and No 8 who over the last few years has been one of this country’s great leaders and loose-forwards. He has played a major part in the Lions’ revival since they returned to Super Rugby in 2014 and were it not for all the injury setbacks would probably still be the Bok captain, with 50 Tests to his name.
As it is, Whiteley’s career has stalled at just the wrong time – and that through no fault of his own.
Ever the optimist, Whiteley will still believe he has a chance of playing in Japan, and when there’s a chance, there’s hope, and he’ll be clinging to that as hard as he can in the coming few weeks and months.