Wants to fin­ish as a win­ner

This is what I al­ways hoped for when I was to fin­ish here ... to play a fi­nal in front of our own fans, says Lions coach

The Star Early Edition - - SPORT -

in spec­tac­u­lar fash­ion in Sat­ur­day’s semi-fi­nal. The seven-time cham­pion Cru­saders beat the Chiefs 27-13 in the other semi to qual­ify for the fi­nal.

Head coach Ack­er­mann will leave the Lions next week af­ter five years in charge, to take up a po­si­tion with Glouces­ter in Eng­land. “It’s a priv­i­lege to be in the Su­per Rugby fi­nal. It’s ex­actly 10 years since I ex­pe­ri­enced the dis­ap­point­ment of los­ing as a player (for the Sharks against the Bulls) ... this time I want to fin­ish as a win­ner, Ack­er­mann said.”

The Lions had to pull out all the stops to get the bet­ter of the Hur­ri­canes on Sat­ur­day af­ter trail­ing 22-3 just be­fore half­time. But a try-sav­ing tackle by Kwagga Smith on Jordie Bar­rett, two li­ne­out steals on the Lions’ try­line by Franco Mostert, and a ball steal at a ruck by cap­tain Jaco Kriel stemmed the tide and al­lowed the home team to score next and in to­tal 41 points to seven in the sec­ond half to win a thriller.

“It’s un­real what has hap­pened. This is what I al­ways hoped for when I was to fin­ish here (as coach of the Lions) ... to play (a fi­nal) in front of our own fans. This has been a spe­cial jour­ney, with a spe­cial bunch of men,” Ack­er­mann said.

“My dream was to fin­ish here at home, at a full El­lis Park ... you can’t ask for more than that. Get­ting 60 000 fans in here will be the ul­ti­mate. To know where we were in 2013 (out of Su­per Rugby) to where we are now ... all those mem­o­ries along the way, what we have gone through, those are the emo­tions go­ing through me.”

The Cru­saders will be only the sec­ond New Zea­land team the Lions will have played against this year, af­ter fac­ing the Hur­ri­canes in the semi­fi­nals. They will be for­mi­da­ble op­po­nents who, like the Lions, lost only once in the reg­u­lar sea­son, with their steely de­fence the hall­mark of their game. The Lions though did get the bet­ter of them at El­lis Park in last year’s quar­ter-fi­nals, but Ack­er­mann said that match would have no bear­ing on what hap­pens this week­end.

“They’ve changed since last year, as have we, and so, too, were the Hur­ri­canes a dif­fer­ent team. The re­al­ity is the Cru­saders are a qual­ity side; there are All Black play­ers all over the place ... just look at their back­ground, their his­tory. It’s go­ing to come down to one 80-minute per­for­mance,” Ack­er­mann said.

“But we’ve got a lot of be­lief in our own abil­i­ties, no mat­ter the op­po­si­tion, so again all I can ask of the play­ers is to give it their best.

“We will re­set on Mon­day (to­day). Right now we haven’t achieved any­thing, we haven’t won a tro­phy yet. They are also go­ing to fight to the end.”

Stand-in Lions skip­per Kriel said it was hard to de­scribe his hap­pi­ness af­ter his team’s come-from-be­hind vic­tory against the Canes. “It’s the best feel­ing I’ve had in quite a while. I can’t ex­plain it ac­tu­ally ... the char­ac­ter of the guys to come back in that sec­ond (half). It just shows how much we care for each other ... it’s re­ally in­spi­ra­tional,” Kriel said.

The good news is that Ack­er­mann will in all like­li­hood have a fit squad to pick from for the fi­nal. Only reg­u­lar cap­tain War­ren White­ley is ex­pected to miss out, even though Ack­er­mann said last week he would be as­sessed to­day.

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