Cape Town – There’s been something about No 8 forwards, amongst reasonably modern Springboks, that makes them respected, widely-trusted and quite natural captains.
In a landscape once rife with provincialism and its associated impediments to team unity, I would argue that all of Andre Vos, Gary Teichmann and Morne du Plessis demonstrated the nous and strength of character to fulsomely bring together players for the green-and-gold cause, even in times of varying success by the national team.
Men like Bob Skinstad, Tiaan Strauss, Jannie Breedt and Wynand Claassen had their moments at the SA helm during the colour-TV era, too, with some better than others at bridging regional, cultural or language-related divides … yet still unmistakably captains in the most classical, comfortable of senses.
Warren Whiteley, the 58th and latest captain of South Africa and another fulltime eighth-man, possesses the diplomatic and other skills to be able to turn the Springboks, who will be under unusually sharp scrutiny against France in June after their 2016 annus horribilis, into a properly motivated, all-hands-to-the-pump unit as they begin a redemption climb.
And like the proverbial lawyers, politicians or journalists at the bottom of the ocean, you have to submit that hallmark would amount to a good start.
Instant success is well less than guaranteed: the French ought to be rugged and resilient, not to mention deeply mindful that they face home foes over the course of three Tests mentally tainted at the outset, in many individual instances, by the near-routinely turbulent and numbing events of last year.
National coach Allister Coetzee will pretty certainly earn as many barbs as bouquets still, too, after he unveiled his first squad on Tuesday: it is a variable brew, featuring several pleasingly new and in-form players during Super Rugby 2017, yet also some fortunate souls with unpalatable traces on their CVs of under-performance in prior Test outings and humdrum Super Rugby form more recently.
They will probably know who they are; so do you and I. You look at the 31-strong party announced and you are entitled to think that gloriously Afrikaans expression of equal-part approval and reservation: ja-nee.
But I would also go almost as far as to say that hard-pressed Coetzee has produced one Midas Touch, one critical choice that could have very discernible, positive spinoffs before too long.
It is Whiteley’s installation as skipper.
Durban-born and educated, but with his zesty leadership of the increasingly ambitious Lions team a popular feature of the Highveld landscape in more recent years, the 29-year-old has cut his captaincy teeth impressively one tier down from Test level and it is as good a time as any in his 10-year first-class career to entrust him with running out in front of the Boks.
Few would dispute that his Lions charges respond positively and with due lustre to their bilingual leader’s commands and cajolements – it is one very good reason they were runners-up in Super Rugby last year, and challenging just as forcefully again to go all the way at this stage of the latest tournament.
Whiteley has had previous exposure to international rugby, holding 15 caps from 2014 onward – like many current squad-mates he is yet to play against France – but never before as dedicated captain.
I argued a few weeks ago that he appears a prime case of a player who is effectively “skipper or bust” … that captaincy and his No 8 skill-set are, you powerfully suspect, inseparable bedfellows if you want the best out of him.
Well, that chance to finally merge them at the premier level has now come.
He has been playing with consistent vigour and industriousness for the Lions, and just recently perhaps gone up a vital gear, too … I thought he was excellent in a herculean defensive effort team-wide in the tight, Aussie tour-closing victory over the Brumbies in Canberra on May 12.
Whiteley is a big-engined character on a rugby field, something that more than atones for the fact that he possibly lacks just three or four kilograms of handy extra beef in build terms.
He is an alert footballer and mobile roamer, with deceptive stepping and dummying skills in attacking situations, and a seriously assured lineout grabber into the bargain.
In an ideal world, he is probably best blended into a loose trio with suitably physical flankers around him, particularly at Test level where gains are often made in very limited yards.
It may be particularly important that the blindside flank deployed with him for the Boks is a grunt-conscious, meaty individual and, reading between the lines, Toulon-based Duane Vermeulen could be set to begin a new chapter in Bok colours as a No 7.
That is a role the now 30-year-old began his Stormers career in, let’s not forget, in 2009 when Schalk Burger was the open-sider and Luke Watson still the No 8 and captain at the time -- he did it very well and there is little reason to suggest, especially as he surrenders the odd yard in pace with the passing of time, that the 116kg specimen could not reprise it successfully for the Springboks.
Whiteley himself will turn 32 just two days before the next World Cup is scheduled to begin in Japan on September 20, 2019, so if he makes a suitable fist of the Bok captaincy, at least part of Coetzee’s thinking must have been that he is highly likely to still “be around” by then.
Who knows at this stage how long Warren Roger Whiteley will hold the reins for, or exactly on what basis it will end?
But I will be surprised, myself, if it is too obviously in tears.
He just has something about him as a leader that reminds me profoundly of Teichmann, who happened to preside over an inspirational, record-creating phase in Springbok history …
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing