Lions No.8 Warren Whiteley has been a revelation at the back of the scrum since bursting onto the scene in last year’s Currie Cup, but he could have been a Shark.
Whiteley looks to be yet another top quality loose forward to come through in South Africa’s never ending conveyor belt of back row stars that make most other nations green with envy.
The 23-year-old has been a regular starter at the Lions since the John Mitchell revolution towards the back end of last year and has formed a great partnership with Joshua Strauss and Derick Minnie as a highly competitive loose trio.
However, Whiteley’s rugby development started in Durban where he was a schoolboy and then at the Sharks academy.
“I’m a born and bred Durban boy and lived there most of my life,” Whiteley told rugby365.com.
“When I was in Grade 10 my parents moved up to Johannesburg and I didn’t want to move schools from Glenwood so I stayed in Durban.”
“I love the outdoors and living by the sea having grown up there.”
The talented No.8 was almost lost to rugby completely after he went to North West University in Potchefstroom after school to follow in his sister’s footsteps and study graphic design.
“My sister is a graphic designer and we are all pretty artistic in my family, but after four months at Potch I changed my mind about studying and decided to go back to Durban and join the Sharks academy,” he explained.
“I was very fortunate that the Sharks and my parents believed in me and gave me that opportunity.
“I was with the Sharks for three years and at the end I was part of the Currie Cup squad, but didn’t get much game time because they have some really good loose forwards who have been in the side for quite some time.”
In search of some extra game time Whiteley then moved to another coastal town, Port Elizabeth, and joined the Might Elephants on a short term contract at the end of the 2009 season.
“I really enjoyed the chance to go to EP and get some game time and play at a higher level in the first division instead of only playing club rugby,” he said.
Finally the big break came for Whiteley, when he received an offer to join the Lions at the start of 2010 and made the move inland to Johannesburg.
Current Lions boss Mitchell can thank his predecessor Dick Muir for bringing Whiteley to the Lions from Durban.
“Dick Muir phoned me and asked if I was interested in coming to the Lions, because when I played for the Wildebeest he was still the Sharks coach,” he explained.
“He said I should give it a shot because there would be more opportunity for me to play here than at the Sharks where there was more depth in my position.”
However, it was Mitchell who gave Whiteley his first start in the Lions senior team and he hasn’t look back.
“John Mitchell backed me and I’m very grateful to him,” Whiteley said.
“He has a lot of knowledge to give to us and his attention to details helps so much, especially for me because he was a No.8 himself.
“I’ve found my feet playing at No.8 now and I’m still learning a lot, because I was a flyhalf at school until in Under-16 I moved to openside flank and only played at No.8 for the first time at U21 level.”
Together with the rest of the young crop of players forging their place in the Lions, Whiteley is excited about the rugby culture that is being brewed at his new home.
After several years of disappointing results, those bad memories began to get washed away by some promising Currie Cup performances last year.
“The Currie Cup was a great experience for us and to start something and building a culture showed us that this is the start of something great,” he said.
“Now we know that we are ready for the challenge of measuring ourselves against the best Super Rugby teams.
“I just want to be a good team man and keep my place in the starting line-up and add as much value as I can.”
With the freedom to play as part of the starting XV Whiteley is able to test himself against the players he looked up to at the Sharks.
“My hero growing up was Henry Honiball, but the loose forwards I look up to currently are Kieran Read, Ryan Kankowski and a guy like Keegan Daniel because of what he is able to do when you think about his size.
“Ryan and Keegan are awesome guys and I’ve played with and against them – it is always good to measure yourself against the best.”
Whiteley is coming into his own at the Lions and despite his love for the sea – he isn’t planning on leaving the big city just yet.
“The Lions have done so much for me that I want to stay here for as long as they want me,” he said.
By Timmy Hancox for Rugby 365Tweet