Whiteley's reward for Olympic sacrifice
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: At the start of the season Lions captain Warren Whiteley faced the most difficult poser of his career - Super Rugby or Sevens.
The lure of joining Neil Powell's BlitzBoks would have been a chance to go to the Rio Olympics, where rugby makes a return after an absence of 92 years.
Instead of 'going for gold' in Rio, Whiteley - who won a gold medal with the BlitzBoks at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014 - chose to stay with the Lions.
His 'reward' for the brave decision is to lead the Lions out in their first Super Ruby Final since 1993 (yes, the Super 10 counts and Transvaal beat Auckland in that match) - when they take on the Hurricanes in Wellington on Saturday.
It has been an extraordinary journey he has been on since February - which included many highs (his first start for the Springboks) and lows (surviving a highjacking).
Lions coach Johan Ackermann, who said he had no hesitation in naming Whiteley as captain after he recovered from a calf strain, described it as "just reward" for the sacrifice the 28-year-old made.
"Warren has been part of the team the whole season," Ackermann said in a trans-Indian Ocean teleconference ahead of Saturday's Final.
"Then there is his leadership and experience, which is quite valuable for us.
"Warren has sacrificed the Olympic Games and it is just reward that he plays in this Final," the coach said, adding: "It is great to have him as part of the leadership group."
Whiteley - who spoke about the moment he became part of South Africa's rising crime statistics after a training session at the team's base in Doornfontein, Johannesburg - said he "very happy and grateful" to be back in the side for the Final.
The incident, the day before the Lions' regular season match against the Hurricanes in Johannesburg on April 30, has not deterred Whiteley or the team.
He was accosted at a traffic light by gun-wielding criminals, who took his wallet and phone.
While they did not want his car or kit, it was still a moment that left a mark on the team the next day - their worst result of the season a day later, when they lost 17-50.
Like the rest of his teammates, Whiteley put it behind him, regrouped and has since lost only one match - against the Jaguares in Round 17, when they sent a B-team to Argentina.
Whiteley said he owes "a lot of gratitude" to the medical staff for getting him ready for the Final.
He said he has not thought about his decision (to give up on playing at the Olympics much) much or looked back at the past.
"I am fortunate to be here and have a chance to contribute [to the Lions' cause in the Final]," he said.
"I just want to do my job at the weekend."
He added that missing the Olympics was probably "the most difficult decision of my career".
"There was no guarantee that I would have gone to the Olympics," the Lions skipper said, adding: "I would still have had to work my way into that side, so it wasn't a guarantee.
"I really wanted to stay here [at the Lions] and contribute [the their Super Rugby uprising].
"We've been working hard for three years and it was a goal of ours," he said, adding that - there also wasn't any guarantees that they would reach the play-offs or be in the Final.
"I followed my heart and my instincts," Whiteley said, adding that the coach [Ackermann] helped him a lot in that decision.
"Coach told me there is no wrong decision.
"I just needed to follow my heart and he would be happy with either decision - whether I played Sevens to go to the Olympics or whether I stayed [with the Lions], he would back me.
"That took a lot of pressure off me."
Whiteley said he wasn't the only player to have made sacrifices to get to the Final.
"Each and every player in this squad had to overcome setbacks - disappointments at other unions and then having to work themselves into this team, first off the bench and then into the starting XV.
"I am no different to any other player in this team.
"The Lions have gone through some tough times [being relegated in 2013] and it has made us all stronger."
He said the Lions want to give a quality performance, something "South Africa can be proud of".
By Jan de Koning