Cape Town – They say a new broom sweeps clean … but also that an old one knows the corners.
Those slightly conflicting sayings perhaps sum up the state of flux surrounding Warren Whiteley’s hold – or will it prove otherwise? – on the Springbok leadership in 2018.
Officially he remains the incumbent (only a particularly inconvenient long-term injury saw him suddenly side-lined for the majority of another up-and-down Test year in 2017), albeit that so much could change in multiple respects for the Boks as Rassie Erasmus gets stuck into his job as SA Rugby’s director of rugby.
Whiteley, after all, was appointed by head coach Allister Coetzee, now only clinging by the finest of threads to his post during the festive season recess for major rugby matters in the southern hemisphere.
As suggested on Sport24 a few weeks ago – and regardless of whether Coetzee somehow soldiers on against the odds with reduced powers in 2018 – a handful of credible candidates are seemingly vying for the captaincy in the now steam-gathering lead-up to the next World Cup in Japan in 2019.
We recommended the names of all of Whiteley, Eben Etzebeth (who picked up the baton from him in the overwhelming majority of 2017 Tests), Duane Vermeulen, Siya Kolisi and darker horse, if you like, Handre Pollard as “possibles” for the leadership going forward.
A personal observation, drawn purely from chats with or soundbites heard from shrewd rugby people in the country, is that some have a little surprisingly “moved on” in their minds from Whiteley.
Is it simply because being out of action for some six months makes that a fairly inevitable occurrence, given how much activity simply carries on in the interim, with absent players more or less forgotten?
Or is it partly due to the fact that Whiteley quietly cranked into his 31st year (on September 18) during his layoff, the sort of terrain that naively gets certain punters thinking “has been”?
Another factor at play may be the fact that heavyweight, Toulon-based Vermeulen made an encouraging return from the Test wilderness towards the end of the season, wearing the No 8 jersey usually intended for Whiteley.
He featured – some might argue significantly -- in the only two of the four European-tour Tests that the Boks won, against France and Italy.
Clearly Vermeulen (just by the way, a year older) is a potentially large stumbling block to Whiteley’s very presence in a Bok XV in 2018, although Vermeulen also has very real possibilities as an effective blindside flank.
But to anyone venturing that the popular, articulate Lions skipper – expected to head a fresh assault on the Super Rugby title from February – is now “toast” for some reason as Bok captain, I’d advise them to think again … unless they know something about Erasmus’s upcoming plans that most of us don’t.
For one thing, Erasmus is smart enough to realise, you would think, that Whiteley was doing an extremely tidy job in the mere two home Tests against France in June where he led the national side.
He really seems one of those sports-people whose best own game comes parallel with the cares of captaincy -- and that short-lived period confirmed it, by my book.
Although he has 17 caps, remember, Whiteley had only just begun his tenure as SA skipper when he picked up his groin injury ahead of the third and final Test against the French – having excelled both as leader and player in the successive, up-tempo Loftus and Kings Park victories.
But there is another far from unimportant reason, I suggest, for believing that Erasmus isn’t automatically intending to omit the rangy eighth-man from his 2018 recipe.
It is that Whiteley, in many ways, is roughly the same type of loose forward Erasmus was in his heyday.
Smart, aware of peripheral situations, fleet-footed and swerving, the former Free State favourite – who played 36 times for South Africa between 1997 and 2001 – bolstered the attacking game of any team he played for, as his linking skills virtually turned him into an extra, tough-to-harness backline player.
Whiteley has the same lightness on his feet and ability to ghost into gaps in open play.
In much the way Erasmus did with his lean and athletic frame, he serves as a wonderful foil for bigger, more grunt-emphasising loose-forward specimens around him. Never under-estimate his virtues as a high-reaching lineout option or poacher on the opposition throw, either.
A vibrant start both individually and for his Lions charges to their ordinary-season programme in 2018 should see Whiteley still much closer to reclaiming the Bok leadership, come the June home Tests against England, than some appear to imagine …
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing