Lions can go all the way, says Mitchell
FORMER Lions coach and the man many feel laid the foundations for the present day successes, John Mitchell, believes 2017 could be the Lions’ year to win the Super Rugby competition.
The Lions qualified for the knockout rounds of the 2017 edition after registering 14 wins from 15 matches for a points haul of 65, two more than the second-placed Crusaders. Their top-of-the-table finish ensures they will play at Ellis Park, and in front of their own fans, for as long as they stay in the competition.
Johan Ackermann’s men will now host the Sharks in the quarter-finals on Saturday. Ackermann was one of Mitchell’s assistants when the New Zealander was in charge in Joburg and coached the Lions to Currie Cup glory in 2011.
The former Springbok lock took over from Mitchell as head coach in the latter stages of the 2012 campaign. The following year the Lions were relegated from Super Rugby and replaced by the Southern Kings.
Ackermann though put together a team, including a number of players not wanted at other unions, and built up a side that would win the Currie Cup in 2015 and reach the Super Rugby final last year, where they lost to the Hurricanes in Wellington.
“Most definitely (they can win the competition),” said Mitchell yesterday when he started his new job as executive of rugby at the Bulls in Pretoria.
“Having topped the log they’ve presented themselves with a great opportunity. I’m not sure the other teams (left in the competition) will understand their emotional motivation with (coach Johan) Ackermann leaving the union at the conclusion of the competition and the fact they fell short at the last hurdle last year.”
Mitchell added that these factors would make the Lions a difficult team to beat, especially as they’ll be playing at home for the rest of the tournament.
“They’ll be highly motivated ... there will be lots of desire. If they can keep their composure and stick to the processes that have got them here, they’ll finish off well,” Mitchell said.
The former Lions man pointed to the team’s axing from Super Rugby in 2013 as a major turning point.
“In my experience, having coached at the Lions, what happened then was probably one of the best things that could have happened. They were able to clean out, get the wage bill down and start again. They also got a young committed group together ... so good things can happen when you’re out of Super Rugby,” Mitchell said.
Ackermann’s Lions will start as firm favourites to win against the Sharks on Saturday and advance to the semi-finals after twice previously getting the better of the Durbanites this season. In their sixth match of the campaign the Lions edged the Sharks 34-29 in Joburg and just last weekend Ackermann’s men won 27-10 in Durban.
The coach will go into the match in confident mood, his side dominating most aspects of the encounter last weekend, but he has still demanded a step-up from his charges.
“I didn’t think our intensity was good enough in Durban, certainly not when compared to how we played earlier in the season,” said Ackermann.
“We also weren’t very accurate in our execution ... we lost balls in contact, and that’s not good enough if we want to go further in this competition.
“Also, we gave away too many penalties at scrum time, and there were also some soft moments, like the try we gave away. There were also times we battled to generate momentum and put phases together ... and that affected the backs who didn’t have a launching pad.
“These are small things that we’ll fix this week though and there remains a great deal of confidence in the team.”