Ack­er­mann en­joy­ing last time with Lions

Lions play­ers must go out there and en­joy them­selves – cap­tain and coach

The Star Early Edition - - FRONT PAGE - JAC­QUES VAN DER WESTHUYZEN

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.

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