Ackermann enjoying last time with Lions
Lions players must go out there and enjoy themselves – captain and coach
THE SECOND hand on the stadium clock is ticking ever closer to the 80th minute and full-time. It’s not even waiting for Johan Ackermann.
Tomorrow will be the last time the Lions boss steps onto the turf at Ellis Park before he starts his new job as head coach of Gloucester in England.
He will want one more big effort from his Lions players as they look to land one of the biggest prizes in rugby – the Super Rugby trophy.
They are up against the seven-time champions, the Crusaders, from New Zealand. The Lions have only played one other Super Rugby final – last year in Wellington, where they lost 20-3 to another Kiwi outfit, the Hurricanes.
Ackermann has been credited with playing a major role in turning the Lions’s fortunes around after they were dumped out of Super Rugby in 2013.
“I’m just embracing as much as I can and enjoying my time with the players,” he said. “You play the whole season to make it to the last week of the competition just so you can spend as much time as you can with the players ... and now we are here, and the hourglass is running out.
“It’s been so special. The memories we’ve made ... I’ll treasure so much.”
Ackermann said fans are desperate for a win tomorrow; but for him, the Lions have already achieved greatness. “I know there will be a lot of emotions and that if we win everyone will be happy, and if we lose there will be sad faces,” he said.
“But I already respect the players, for the way they have supported me and the coaching team. It’s been a pleasure to get up every morning of the week and drive from my home in Pretoria and spend it with these guys.
“One result isn’t going to change that.”
Jaco Kriel, who has captained the Lions in their last four matches following an injury to Warren Whiteley, said tomorrow’s result will not define the team’s season.
“When you look back at the journey we’ve been on for four years, one win (or loss) isn’t going to define us,” he said.
“It’s only one game ... what we’ve done in four years is what’s important, the brotherhood we’ve built, the love and care we have for each other ... that is what is unbelievable and incredible.
“It doesn’t matter who is going away after the match and who is staying, we will always be together.”
Ackermann said every person who has been involved with the Lions in recent seasons was a part of the family.
He singled out Whiteley, Julian Redelinghuys, Howard Mnisi and Dylan Smith, who are all injured and miss out tomorrow, as well as former Lions players Warwick Tecklenburg, Schalk van der Merwe and Willie Britz.
“Willie sent me a message wishing us well and I told him he, too, was part of this journey. Every player who’s worn the jersey has made an impact here,” Ackermann said.
“Julian has started a mentorship programme, Warren is heavily involved in the team environment, and even Howard and Dylan have done a lot behind the scenes.
“Getting into this final has been a collective effort where so many people have played their part.”
Time waits for no one, but for the Lions, “Father Time” might wait long enough for them to bag their prize.
THERE’S a Super Rugby trophy on the line – which potentially makes it the biggest day in Lions history – but all Johan Ackermann wants his players to do
is enjoy the moment ... every moment.
They had an opportunity last year, but never really stood a chance in the wet and cold of Wellington as they went down to the Hurricanes 20-3, but are at home in the dry Highveld conditions this time and in front of 62 000 passionate fans.
Awaiting them tomorrow are the seven-time champions, the Crusaders – the most successful team in Super Rugby history. One could say it’s David against Goliath.
“They’re a side full of All Blacks and they’ll punish every mistake,” said Lions boss Ackermann, facing the media for the last time ahead of a big Super Rugby match before heading overseas next week to take up a position with Gloucester in England. “They’re a quality side, but all we can do is focus on ourselves and what we need to do.
“Some of the individuals would have learned a few things from the experience of playing in the final last year, but this is going to be very different. Some players weren’t involved last year, the venue is different, and a lot bigger ... and the guys know they have one shot at it.
“All I can ask of them is to do everything they can for one more 80-minute performance and not have any regrets afterwards.”
Ackermann added his message to the players would be simple. First and foremost he said, they had to start better than they did in the semi-final of last week when, before they knew it, they were 22-3 down against the Hurricanes.
And then, “We can’t slip any box. We have to be good in the setpieces, in defence ... everywhere. But, most importantly, I want the players to play with freedom, I want them to express themselves ... and enjoy every moment.”
Ackermann added the fans could expect the same type of rugby the Lions have dished up for the past few seasons.
“We play rugby for two reasons, to honour God and to inspire people with an exciting brand of rugby. We’re not going to change anything now ... we’re going to play the kind of rugby that has brought us to this final, but to do that we know we’re going to have to do the small things right first.
“And that is for every player to focus on what he has to do, make sure he fulfils his role and then to be switched on for the full 80 minutes or more ... and then hopefully we’ll get over the winning line.”
Captain Jaco Kriel echoed his coach’s sentiments: “We’ve got one shot at it ... there’s no coming back next week. The players are excited and I’ve told them to enjoy it. The good news is we’re at home and we know the weather will be great.
“For many of these guys, it’ll be the first time they play in front of a full Ellis Park so I want them to take it all in and enjoy it. But they are also going to have to be switched on and do their jobs. I think that’s the lesson we learned from the quarter-final (against the Sharks) and the semi-final (against the Hurricanes) ... we need to be switched on from the start and everyone must buy into it.”
Not surprisingly Ackermann has stuck with the same 23 players who have done duty since Super Rugby resumed after the June break. It is an unchanged squad from the one that got past the Sunwolves, Sharks (twice) and Hurricanes.
Kick-off is tomorrow at 4pm.