Standout coach says success must be a
Some 20 years ago, there was an incident in a club rugby match that caused ripples in the Blue Bulls rugby community. A young lock forward, playing for Police, became so incensed at being sneak-punched by a Tukkies hooker at a game at the university’s LC de Villiers Stadium that he exacted a bit of retribution never before seen in Northern Transvaal’s tough club environment.
The strapping youngster threw down the ball and chased after his assailant. The Tukkies player was so alarmed at the big man bearing down on him that he ran away … off the field and into the crowd.
But the lock did not back off. He caught up with the aggressor – who was by then among the fans – and “sorted him out”.
The sage old forwards in a province known as South Africa’s “lock factory” nodded their heads in approval and predicted that the Bobbies’ lock would soon play for the Bulls.
That young player was Johan Ackermann, current coach of the Lions.
He was picked for the Bulls after his arresting performance against Tukkies and, after a long, injury-interrupted – but nevertheless stellar – playing career, he turned his hand to coaching.
Ackermann is credited with guiding the understaffed and underresourced Lions to their most successful season in Super Rugby, and turning them into the country’s most exciting side.
It seems at odds with his background as a tough, uncompromising tight forward schooled in the conservative Blue Bulls mode, but Ackermann insists it is just the alter ego of all tight forwards coming to the fore.
“Locks and props also want to run with the ball, you know, and what we did at the Lions was implement a style suited to our resources.
“We looked at our team profile and decided the way to go was to play to our strengths. We had many players who were not given a chance by other unions – not big enough, not strong enough. But the one thing they could do was run.
“We knew it would be hard and high risk – there were some games we might have won but didn’t because guys maybe took chances they shouldn’t have – but it was part of the process.
“We worked hard on our skill levels to be able to play a more daring game. Our vision was to play an exciting brand of rugby, to play with flair, to give the guys freedom to play and really enjoy it,” said Ackermann.
The former Bok is big on the collective pronoun we and is clear that the Lions’ turnaround – after a disastrous season spent out of Super Rugby – has been a team effort.
He constantly gives credit to fellow coaches Swys de Bruin, JP Ferreira, Ivan van Rooyen and the players who “have also come up with some excellent ideas and tactics”.
“The way we play at the Lions is a team effort. We have all bought into it; we support each other and we’ll stand or fall by it,” he emphasised.
But make no mistake, Ackermann is still that rampaging bull at heart, who refuses “to take any nonsense”.
“There have to be grinders. My tight forwards know my expectation on that; I don’t tolerate anyone who shies away from hard work.
“The principles that were drummed into me at the Bulls are still very much part of me because they are intrinsic to rugby.
“At the Lions, we encourage attacking rugby, but the tight forwards know that it won’t happen if they don’t do the hard work.”
Johan Ackermann has led the Lions to their most successful season in Super Rugby