Emo­tions run high for Lions

Coach and cap­tain strug­gle to hold back the tears as Ack­er­mann leaves


JO­HAN Ack­er­mann will board a plane to Heathrow on Wed­nes­day night to start his new job at Glouces­ter on Thurs­day. But be­fore then he will wrap up what­ever needs to be done at the Lions Rugby Union and say his good­byes to the peo­ple he says have be­come fam­ily over the last five years.

It won’t be easy ... just as it wasn’t easy on Satur­day when he knew it would be his last day in charge of his beloved Lions and then af­ter­wards when he had to ac­cept his side had lost their sec­ond Su­per Rugby fi­nal in a row.

Ack­er­mann was teary eyed when he spoke to the me­dia after his side had gone down 2517 to the Cru­saders in front of a packed El­lis Park, but one gets the sense he was more sad­dened by the fact it was his last day in charge of the Lions than los­ing the fi­nal, his side be­ing re­duced to 14 men after the red-card­ing of Kwagga Smith in the first half.

“I didn’t think it would be so hard ... I thought it would be eas­ier to move on,” he said. “I bat­tled my emo­tions all day and shed a lot more tears than I thought I would. It’s tough ... and I must be hon­est, I doubted this morn­ing whether I made the right de­ci­sion (to move to Glouces­ter). But then, this is not about me, but what God has got planned for me.

“If it means I must go away to make a dif­fer­ence else­where, then I must. But it’s tough ... know­ing this it with this group in the change-room.”

It may not have ended on the high Ack­er­mann, the play­ers, the ad­min­is­tra­tors and the fans wanted, but the Lions, over the last few years have be­come the lead­ing union in the coun­try and the de­part­ing coach should take pride in that.

Ack­er­mann will leave hav­ing lost two Su­per Rugby fi­nals – in a wet and cold Welling­ton last year and at home this last week­end, against ar­guably the great­est fran­chise in world rugby – but his im­pact on the Lions and South African rugby in gen­eral has been mas­sive.

From be­ing no­bod­ies in 2013, the Lions now dom­i­nate the make-up of the Spring­bok squad, they play the most ex­cit­ing and suc­cess­ful brand of rugby in the coun­try and they can com­pete with the very best teams in the game, and that in­cludes the so-called un­touch­ables and other-worldly teams from New Zealand.

Last sea­son they lost five Su­per Rugby matches out of 18; this year they lost two of 18 ... that is a win record of 29 out of 36 matches in the last two sea­sons. It is a quite phe­nom­e­nal turn-around for a side that wasn’t even play­ing Su­per Rugby four years ago. “When we went on our first tour to­gether in 2014 (after re­turn­ing from rel­e­ga­tion) 24 out of the 26 guys played in Aus­trala­sia for the first time. The growth has been phe­nom­e­nal, now we pro­duce 11, 12 Boks ... and for a coach that is a big high­light, it’s why you do the job,” said Ack­er­mann.

“We also recorded some spe­cial vic­to­ries along the way ... beat­ing the Storm­ers at New­lands, the Sharks in Dur­ban, the Chiefs in Hamil­ton, the Cru­saders in the play-offs here last year ... and then scor­ing the most tries last year. Also, see­ing these men be­come qual­ity adults ... it’s been a great jour­ney ... there have been many high­lights.”

Stand-in Lions cap­tain Jaco Kriel had to hold back the tears when asked his thoughts of Ack­er­mann. “My emo­tions are all over the place. Coach is like a fa­ther to me ... he’s been a men­tor and taught me so much, and all the play­ers will say that. He’s also one of the great­est coaches I’ve worked with ... we’re just sorry we couldn’t get the tro­phy for him.”

Ack­er­mann may be leav­ing, but the Lions are go­ing nowhere.

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