Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, Lions captain WARREN WHITELEY discusses the Lions’ attacking evolution, his dream of captaining the Springboks in the future and the local derby at Ellis Park on Friday night.
Sport24 asked: The last time that the Lions (then the Cats) qualified for the Super Rugby playoffs was in 2001. What elements have come together to make this season such a resounding success?
Warren Whiteley: It’s definitely not just this season. Over the last three years we have been building up to reach this point. Having the same players together for a number of years and getting better at what we do has been key. This season, every single player that has been afforded an opportunity or been asked to perform has really put his hand up. The spirit is fantastic in the camp at the moment and while we have had a few niggles this season, it hasn’t slowed down our momentum and the confidence within the group. The fact that we have coped with injury setbacks speaks to the depth that we have grown at the union. Being successful in Super Rugby really is all about a squad effort.
Sport24 asked: Why do you feel strongly that no individual can be recognised without the team?
Warren Whiteley: Rugby is a team sport and there is no way that you can achieve without the men alongside you. In this sport, you cannot do it alone and therefore no individual can be recognised without the team. For us at the Lions, it’s never been about the individual and has always been about the team. As such, we don’t rely on specific individuals, but rather the unit. We are a team and play as a team. In modern professional sport it’s challenging to be in an ego-free environment. And especially so when you start achieving, but over the last few years we have worked hard on the person. The All Blacks have a motto: “Better people make better All Blacks.” And, at the Lions, we also believe in that mantra. We work tirelessly on ourselves as people and we don’t veer away from asking the tough questions of ourselves and each other. We discuss the challenges that we might face and have an open policy in our squad when it comes to communication. I believe that if you develop as a person, it will ultimately reflect in your performance as an individual and as a collective.
Sport24 asked: All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has said: “Worry is a wasted emotion.” How have the Lions addressed the fear of failure and been able to play the game with a sense of freedom?
Warren Whiteley: We all have fear inside of us, that is a given, but it’s about overcoming that fear. Because we spend so much time talking about the pressures we are set to face on game day, in real time we can make the right decisions and react accordingly. Obviously in the past it was more difficult to do, but as you develop as a side and gain more experience, you naturally start making better decisions. You can’t say that their isn’t pressure or a fear of failure, that feeling will always be there, but being able to overcome that is really important. In terms of errors, you can’t fix a mistake you make during the game, but you can actually rectify the situation as in your reaction to the mistake. At the Lions, we have calls that we make when an error is committed. For instance, when a player knocks the ball on we will shout, “Next job”. We have been employing the policy for a number of years now. Everyone knows that system and is aware of the trigger words that we make use of.
Sport24 asked: The Lions’ attack has evolved. What impact has backs coach Swys de Bruin made?
Warren Whiteley: Coach Swys has had a huge impact. He’s a fantastic individual and someone that is so passionate about the game. He has taken our attack from strength to strength. Coach Akkies (John Ackermann) had a vision in terms of how he wanted us to play and was initially influenced by John Mitchell. But when Swys came to the Lions, he implemented some new elements to our attack. He has been instrumental in the way that we attack and we train his running lines weekly. For me, he is a visionary when it comes to rugby. He sees things differently, is always up for something new and has a trick up his sleeve. He keeps us on our toes as players and has been unbelievable for the union. We are very fortunate to have him within our camp and he keeps challenging us as players. I must also mention JP Ferreira. While he is our defence coach, he also works on our attack from kick-offs. And credit must also go to our conditioning coach because we wouldn’t be able to attack like we do if we weren’t suitably conditioned. Holistically, our coaches make a great team unit and they work together in terms of the way we want to play. They all work in tandem and that synergy certainly rubs off on us as players. We can have a go, back ourselves and really trust our instincts as players. We are afforded the freedom to express ourselves and that is very rewarding for us players.
Sport24 asked: What do you make of the comparisons the Lions have drawn with the Kiwi sides?
Warren Whiteley: As South Africans we have been used to a certain brand of rugby, but you can’t say that South African teams are incapable of passing between backs and forwards. I believe all our sides can do that, and if you go watch schoolboy rugby you will see a forward running and passing. As South African rugby players, I feel we all have the talent to be able to play the style of rugby we have honed at the Lions. However, we also have to be honest and admit that New Zealand is the benchmark at the moment in world rugby. Of benefit to them is that they play a similar style of rugby across the board. All their Super Rugby franchise employ a similar style of play and ultimately, when they get chosen for national duty, it makes it a lot easier to implement that brand. The All Blacks are the front-runners at present. However, I maintain that we have the talent and playing personnel in South Africa in order to narrow the gap and definitely surpass them in the near future.
Sport24 asked: You are seen as a future Springbok captain and have been likened to Gary Teichmann, who led the national team in 36 Test matches. What do you make of that comparison?
Warren Whiteley: It’s a huge complement and honour to be compared to Teichmann. I originally hail from Durban and he was a boyhood hero of mine. It’s a massive task to live up to the player and captain he was, but I appreciate the comparison. In terms of the Springbok captaincy, I can’t deny that I have dreamt about it. As a player, the ultimate is to captain your team. But, for me, it’s about first proving myself at international level and being the best player in my position before I can captain. I’ve only started one Test match and, first and foremost, it will be about establishing myself.
Sport24 asked: The Lions top the overall conference system. Is your ambition to win Super Rugby?
Warren Whiteley: We can’t deny that we dream of winning Super Rugby. However, our focus, like it has always been, will be on the task at hand. It’s about living in the now and facing the Kings on Friday is our next challenge. We’ve spoken about not becoming complacent and we challenge ourselves as individuals and as a team on a weekly basis. You always need to keep yourself in check and we work on that at all times. The Kings draw confidence from a solid set-piece, but we’ll focus on what we want to achieve. We are a performance-based rather than results-driven team and will concentrate on our performance. We’ve set a standard during the season which we need to uphold.
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