Trusted leader of the Lions’ pride

Play­ers and coaches heap praise on their departing coach Ack­er­mann

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

HIS right-hand man Swys de Bruin was at first un­sure what to say. Then, af­ter a pause, he said, “A man of char­ac­ter.”

That’s how Lions as­sis­tant coach De Bruin summed up Jo­han Ack­er­mann when quizzed this week about the man who has led the Lions into back-to­back Su­per Rugby fi­nals.

The Lions will to­mor­row face off with the sev­ens-time cham­pi­ons, the Cru­saders, from New Zealand. It will be the visi­tors’ 12th ap­pear­ance in a fi­nal; for the Lions it’ll be just their sec­ond. Ack­er­mann’s men lost to the Hur­ri­canes in the last match in 2016 in Welling­ton.

It has been a re­mark­able two years for the Lions in Su­per Rugby. Last sea­son they lost four reg­u­lar com­pe­ti­tion matches and then the fi­nal for a win-loss record of 13-5 and go into to­mor­row’s match hav­ing won 16 of 17 matches in this year’s com­pe­ti­tion. Their win-loss record is iden­ti­cal to that of the Cru­saders.

But there’s not only a tro­phy on the line to­mor­row. It’s also the last time Ack­er­mann will be in charge of the Lions as his next job will be with Glouces­ter in Eng­land.

It’s been some jour­ney for the for­mer Spring­bok lock, who bowed out of pro­fes­sional rugby at the age of 37 years 272 days, making him the old­est player ever in Su­per Rugby, on March 1, 2008. He was in the win­ning Sharks team that beat the Bulls 29-15 at Lof­tus that day. Ear­lier that year he had also played for the Spring­boks, also be­com­ing the old­est to do so; in to­tal run­ning out 13 times for the na­tional team.

Af­ter his re­tire­ment from play­ing, Ack­er­mann turned to coach­ing and soon be­came John Mitchell’s for­wards man at the Lions. When the Kiwi left the union in the lat­ter stages of the 2012 Su­per Rugby sea­son, Ack­er­mann stepped up and took charge. It was a dif­fi­cult pe­riod for the Lions who’d been rel­e­gated from the com­pe­ti­tion (in favour of the Kings) the next sea­son (2013), but it didn’t bother Ack­er­mann, who de­cided to build a new team around a new value sys­tem: they de­cided to play en­ter­pris­ing rugby and put smiles on faces.

It worked a treat.

“The first thing you need to know about Ack­ers is that his (Chris­tian) faith is every­thing to him,” said De Bruin,

this week. “He’s a man of char­ac­ter ... of hon­esty ... and trust. He’s got a big heart, and he’s pas­sion­ate about every­thing he does, his fam­ily, his faith, this team.

“He’s a one-of-a-kind guy, a re­ally unique in­di­vid­ual off the field, but he’s also a man with a very good sense of hu­mour.”

De Bruin and Ack­er­mann come a long way to­gether. “I coached him at Griquas around 2003. We badly needed a big pow­er­ful lock and he joined us and I think we won all seven games he played for us that sea­son. That’s where our jour­ney to­gether be­gan. Then we worked to­gether at the Sharks, too. I sup­pose we started trust­ing each other then al­ready ... and when he of­fered me the job of at­tack coach here at the Lions in 2012, I jumped at it.”

De Bruin said he has never ex­pe­ri­enced an­other coach with the “touch” that Ack­er­mann pos­sesses. “I’ve been in­volved in coach­ing for 32 years and I’ve not seen any­one get out of play­ers what Ack­ers gets out of th­ese guys. He’s a master for­wards coach ... the way he mo­ti­vates them, it’s in­cred­i­ble. They re­ally play for him, they’re like his kids ... that’s why the Lions are such a tight group.

“The great thing is Ack­ers lets us get on with what we have to do, with­out in­ter­fer­ing. He trusts each guy fully to do his job ... and that makes work­ing and get­ting along so much eas­ier. It’s been a plea­sure work­ing with him over the last five years, it’s been won­der­ful.”

Injured prop Ju­lian Redel­inghuys also pointed to Ack­er­mann’s trust in his play­ers as a key part of his make-up. “He cares for ev­ery player and backs them all the way ... he makes ev­ery player feel spe­cial and im­por­tant.

“But coach Ack­ers has also al­ways man­aged to get the bal­ance right be­tween be­ing se­ri­ous and hav­ing some fun ... he just knows how to make ev­ery day a good day. But that said, he’s a stick­ler for hard work and he likes the guys who put the ef­fort in.”

Ack­er­mann cer­tainly seems to have the magic for­mula ... and he’ll hope it works won­ders again to­mor­row. A MAN TO FOLLOW: Jo­han Ack­er­mann’s Lions will take the field to­mor­row against the Cru­saders in the fi­nal of Su­per Rugby full of be­lief they can take the crown due to the trust the coach has in them. This will be Ack­er­mann’s last game at the helm of the Lions be­fore he leaves for Eng­land.

This was the be­gin­ning of what would be a hand­ful of epic bat­tles be­tween the two best teams from South Africa and New Zealand and th­ese matches would play them­selves out on South African soil.

The Cru­saders had to quickly scram­ble to catch a flight from Christchurch to Johannesburg af­ter wit­ness­ing the Bulls do the im­pos­si­ble

In a re­play of the semi-fi­nal from two years be­fore, the two giants of south­ern hemi­sphere rugby played out an­other epic bat­tle with the Bulls prov­ing too strong on the day.

The Cru­saders would have gone into this game be­liev­ing that it would be third time lucky for them and the fact that they weren’t play­ing at Lof­tus would hurt the Bulls.

How­ever, the Bulls had mas­tered suc­ceed­ing through ad­ver­sity and were gal­va­nized by the in­tim­i­dat­ing venue of Orlando Sta­dium in Soweto as Steyn put on an­other kicking master class with six penal­ties and three con­ver­sions.

The Bulls had picked up enough con­fi­dence and ex­pe­ri­ence in the past three years to know ex­actly how to beat the Cru­saders in play-off matches and this time around they put on an even big­ger win­ning mar­gin of 15 points with three tries Fourie du Preez, Zane Kirch­ner and Spies.

It was a win that again un­der­lined the Bulls’ supremacy in the com­pe­ti­tion

It would have come as no sur­prise for the Cru­saders to be­lieve that their win­less run on the Highveld in play-offs would come to an end on this barmy af­ter­noon at El­lis Park af­ter beat­ing the Lions in their round robin fix­ture at the same venue but his­tory would re­peat it­self in the ugli­est of ways.

The writ­ing was on the wall by the 15th minute with the Lions tak­ing a 15-0 lead af­ter two tries from Court­nal Skosan and Ro­han Janse Van Rens­burg and a penalty by fly­half El­ton Jan­tjies.

This en­counter was an­other spec­ta­cle of run­ning rugby with both sides throw­ing every­thing at each other but it was the Lions who would go into the half-time in­ter­val with a 22-10 lead af­ter hooker Mal­colm Marx had scored a try on the cusp of the break for the hosts.

Just as the Bulls had done in years gone by, Jan­tjies took the game by the scruff of the neck with his tac­ti­cal kicking and pin-point ac­cu­racy when kicking at goal as he slot­ted over a drop-goal and a penalty be­fore Ruan Com­brinck and Ross Cronje put the re­sult be­yond doubt with their tries.

This would be the Cru­saders big­gest loss in a play-off game on the Highveld and fur­ther proof of the dif­fi­cul­ties of trav­el­ling across the In­dian Ocean and win­ning even with some of the best play­ers in the world in your team.

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