Lions can go all the way, says Mitchell

The Star Early Edition - - SPORT - JAC­QUES VAN DER WESTHUYZEN

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.”

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