This is a new game with a clean slate – Ack­er­mann

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

THERE SHOULD be no doubt about who the favourites are to come out on top in the Su­per Rugby semi-fi­nal at El­lis Park to­mor­row, ac­cord­ing to Li­ons boss Jo­han Ack­er­mann.

“We’re play­ing against the de­fend­ing cham­pi­ons, who had a great win against the Cru­saders (two week­ends ago), and beat the Brumbies away last week,” said Ack­er­mann yes­ter­day about the Hur­ri­canes, whom they face to­mor­row.

“Last year’s re­sults make them the favourites, def­i­nitely,” added the Li­ons coach. “They’re a qual­ity side and they proved it in 2016. The chal­lenge for us is to com­pete against them this time.”

In 2016 the Hur­ri­canes came to El­lis Park and whipped the Li­ons 50-17 and in the fi­nal, al­beit in Welling­ton, they won again, 20-3. Their over­all record against the Li­ons is very im­pres­sive – hav­ing lost just once in 14 matches since 2002 when the Li­ons split from the Cats (see story above).

That said, the Li­ons are at home to­mor­row, play­ing in front of their own fans, and at a venue where they haven’t lost in 15 matches, go­ing back to late April last year – that’s 15 months. Iron­i­cally, the last team to beat Ack­er­mann’s men in Joburg were the Hur­ri­canes.

“We haven’t talked about last year’s games be­tween the teams, we haven’t looked at them (on video) and there’s been no talk about re­venge or any­thing like that,” said Ack­er­mann. “This is a new game and the slate is clean, it’s zero-zero.

“Things have changed in both teams since last year and some guys played last year who aren’t play­ing now. The re­al­ity is this is about now, not last year, and if we want a shot at the ti­tle we have to get over the hur­dle in front of us.”

The match to­mor­row will be the first this sea­son against a New Zealand team for the Li­ons, some­thing many crit­ics have said will count against Ack­er­mann’s men, but if truth be told, his side were em­phatic win­ners against the Chiefs, Blues, High­landers and Cru­saders last sea­son, with just the Canes get­ting the bet­ter of them.

“We have that ex­pe­ri­ence (from last year), so the play­ers will be able to tap into that knowl­edge,” said Ack­er­mann. “We’ve got a proud home record here (since los­ing to the Canes last year), and have one shot at them this year. All I can ask of the play­ers is to give it their best.

“The play­ers know they didn’t per­form up to stan­dard last week­end (against the Sharks in the quar­ter-fi­nal), so it is up to them, ev­ery start­ing mem­ber and every­one on the bench, to lift their game if we’re go­ing to give one of the best teams, if not the best, in the com­pe­ti­tion a run.”

Cap­tain Jaco Kriel agreed with Ack­er­mann that the vis­i­tors are the favourites, but he said his play­ers were ex­cited to be in a sec­ond Su­per Rugby semi-fi­nal.

“All the pres­sure was on us last week (against the Sharks), this time it’s on the Hur­ri­canes, who’re the de­fend­ing cham­pi­ons.

“But we’re ex­cited about the chal­lenge. We had a hard look at our­selves af­ter the Sharks game, but put it be­hind us quickly. Be­ing here again, with an­other shot at the fi­nal is just spe­cial.”

Are the Li­ons favourites or un­der­dogs then? Hur­ri­canes coach Chris Boyd would prob­a­bly also opine that the op­po­si­tion, the Li­ons, are the favourites to win through to the fi­nal.

To­mor­row’s match is a tough one to call, but con­sid­er­ing the Li­ons strug­gled past the Sharks in the last fort­night and the Canes won well (against the Cru­saders and Brumbies) it’s un­der­stand­able why Ack­er­mann has talked up the Canes. –

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