It’s been a good year for Tim Whitehead. After failing to break through into the Stormers starting XV on a consistent basis, the Port Elizabeth native put his lot in with the Sharks... and he has not looked back since.
Whitehead has gone from bit-player in Cape Town to regular starter in Durban and this weekend he will form an exciting partnership with Springbok centre Frans Steyn when they take on the Bulls.
The skilful midfielder readily admits that he is enjoying his start to life at the Sharks and credits the environment within the team for a lot of the success he has had.
“I fit into the group of guys quite well; it’s very much my sort of playing environment, especially off the field,” he told iafrica.com.
“It is very social in terms of being together, out and about after training, lots of braais, a lot of breakfasts together…
“Obviously on the field, I feel I fit in quite nicely with the style of rugby the guys are playing and it’s a very positive vibe, which I have really enjoyed since moving here.”
Coming from Cape Town, where the Stormers employ a very defensive gameplan, Whitehead has had to adapt to the free-running, attacking play used by the Sharks. However, he believes both have their merits.
“It’s just a different gameplan,” he said.
“The Stormers have a very successful gameplan – it is a little bit more structured – whereas we attack from all over the field. But that is what works for them and they have reaped the benefits of that game. They are probably one of the best defensive sides in the world at the moment and that is what makes them so good.
“They also have some X factor players like Aplon, De Jongh, Pietersen, De Villiers… all those guys are cooking in the backline. Obviously, from my point of view, it just works nicely to get a feel for a different type of team, you get to learn something from different training systems – different defensive and attacking structures – and that has helped me quite a bit.”
A move that paid off
A product of Grey High School in PE, he admits that it was the lack of game-time that ultimately prompted his move to Durban and the Sharks.
“That was one of the deciding factors for me moving,” he says.
“Because it was very difficult to get a start at the Stormers – also a spot on the bench – in Super Rugby with those three Springbok centres that myself [Johan] Sadie, and JJ [Engelbrecht] were all sitting behind… so to try and find an opportunity to start on the field, which I think all three of us have benefited from since moving.”
It has certainly paid off for Whitehead. He is a regular in the Sharks midfield and this weekend finds himself shifting from inside to outside centre, to accommodate Bok star Steyn in the number 12 jersey. It makes for a formidable centre pairing.
“We certainly aren’t short of inside centres at the moment with Meyer [Bosman], myself, Frans Steyn and Marius [Joubert]… so we have plenty in that department. It’s always been a dream of mind to play with him – he is one of the best, if not the best, inside centre in the world,” says Whitehead of his pairing with Steyn.
“So I am quite stoked to get a chance to play alongside him. Even in just the past few days of training just being in the backline with him, he plays what is in front of him a lot, which is exactly the kind of game I want to play as well. So I am really excited to get the opportunity to combine with him.”
'A freak of nature'
The Bulls, of course, also boast an impressive centre combination, with Bok Wynand Olivier and Bok squad member JJ Englelbrecht on the opposite side of the field this weekend. The battle in the midfield will be one to watch.
“They don’t have a bad midfield as well!” he says.
“Wynand has been playing really well, JJ – a very good friend of mine who was at school with me – is bloody exciting at the moment, with so much pace and strength. He may be a little inexperienced (at centre), but he is world-class. I have always said when I saw him play at Province that I thought he would be a Springbok one day. He is a freak of nature in terms of his physicality, so it is going to be quite a thing to play against him!
“They are a great centre combination as well, but hopefully we can stand up to them.”
The clash against the Bulls will be crucial to the Sharks’ hopes of a play-off berth, because a loss could very well end their season. Whitehead and his team-mates are well aware of the implications and they will be looking to bounce back from the surprise loss to the Lions prior to the international break.
“Before the Lions game, we were on quite a roll with four-from-four and it was our goal to make it five-from-five before the international break, but ja, it was a little bit of a hiccup against the Lions,” he admits.
“The game against the Bulls is going to be very important, it’s make or break, and we are not going to rely on the permutations of any of the other results that lie ahead. We would rather just focus on ourselves and try and get the victory this weekend and attempt to qualify for the play-offs.”
The Sharks narrowly lost the first game against the Bulls this season – at Loftus in February – but they are banking on home-ground advantage giving them an extra boost this time.
“I think it does make a big difference when you play at home,” he says.
“I have only experienced Newlands and Kings Park, and the support has always been fantastic, but the Sharks have a great bunch of fans that get out there to support you and get behind you.
“When I was younger they always said ‘home ground advantage makes a big difference’, but I never really understood it… until you play you don’t realise how comfortable you are in your own system, your own changing room, everything is just ironed out nicely. Hopefully, they can get behind us this weekend and we can deliver for the home fans.”
And does the big midfielder have any personal aspirations to impress Bok coach Heyneke Meyer this weekend?
“I’m the kind of player that just enjoys my rugby. Obviously, I would like to be a Bok, but Heyneke spoke to me and I know where I stand with him and I understand that.
“I just go about every game as if it is the most important game and go out there to do the best that I possibly can… I don’t think anything will change by what happens this weekend, but I will go out there and give everything I have for the team.”