Kalahari kid ready to put the boot into Pumas
SPOTLIGHT: Griqua Park on Saturday will be the venue of a truly Cinderella moment, when Griquas host the Pumas in the Currie Cup Final.
There are many reasons why it will be a special occasion.
Firstly, it WILL be a sell-out 12,000 crowd – the first time since the arrival of COVID in 2020 that a sporting venue in South Africa will have a full capacity.
With two minnows contesting the Grande Finale of South Africa’s premier domestic competition, not only will a new champion be crowned, but if the Pumas win they will become only the eighth team to hold aloft Sir Donald Currie’s donation to South African rugby.
Previous winners are Western Province (34 titles – four titles shared), Northern Transvaal/Blue Bulls (25 – four titles shared), Transvaal/Gauteng Lions/Golden Lions (11 – one title shared), Natal/Sharks (eight), Orange Free State/Free State Cheetahs (six – one title shared), Griqualand West/Griquas (three) and Border/Border Bulldogs (two – both shared).
However, for Griquas fullback George Alexander Whitehead it has been a very long and bumpy road to the Final – which, like his teammate and scrumhalf Stefan Ungerer, took a turn and an unpleasant ending in Port Elizabeth.
Born and schooled in Bloemfontein, Whitehead spent his junior years in the Cheetahs structures – moving to Port Elizabeth and the Kings in 2011.
The 33-year-old was a mainstay in the EP Kings (domestic competitions) and Southern Kings (Super Rugby) – a five-year stay he described as an “enjoyable time”.
By 2016, after the well-documented administrative issues in Port Elizabeth, Whitehead move back to the Free State – where he joined up with the Griffons.
He made a handful of appearances for the Cheetahs in Super Rugby that year and by 2017 he moved to Kimberley, becoming a stalwart in the Griquas campaigns for the past five years.
It is a move that not only brought stability to his playing career, but has seen the “enjoyment” return to his life.
As one of the more established players, White has been a key on-field driving force that ensured the Currie Cup Final will take place in Kimberley for the first time in 52 years.
As a self-proclaimed ‘country boy’ Whitehead says Kimberley is very much the same as Bloemfontein.
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“My family is from the Kalahari region in the Northern Cape,” he told @rugby365com.
“I have a lot of family around, and I am very familiar with the region.
“I enjoy the countryside, I am close to the farm, while my parents and my in-laws are also not too far away.”
Turning his attention to the game and Saturday’s Final, Whitehead’s educated boot will again play a vital role in deciding the domestic season’s showcase event.
“I enjoy the responsibility of taking on the kicking role,” he said, adding: “My dad and I have always gone kicking since I was a young boy and it is ingrained in me.
“It is an important part of the game and a massive responsibility – which I enjoy.”
He says repeating a successful routine is the key to staying calm and not making too much of a kick – treating every shot the same.
“Every kick is the same and you must trust the process that brought you success so often before,” he told @rugby365com, adding: “You must just back yourself.”
He brings with him the experience of 11 previous finals – with the Kings against the Pumas in the First Division Finals in 2012 and 2013, in 2916 he played with the Griffons in the First Division Final, while with Griquas he featured in the domestic Challenge Finals of 2017, 2018 and 2019.
Then there were a few more during his years in the junior ranks, ensuring he is aware of the ‘pressure of the occasion’.
“Some of our other players have also featured in finals, such as the Varsity Cup Final,” he said, adding: “It is not something new for us.”
He was adamant that it would be foolhardy to deviate from what has worked so far this season.
“We expect the Pumas to stick to their game plan as well,” he said.
“Discipline would also be massive in a Final.
“Good discipline will give you a sound platform to launch your attacks from. Penalties would add to the pressure on the team.”