It’s often easier said than done, but the Lions’ successful return to Super Rugby has everything to do with focusing on what’s in front of them and not getting caught up in the hype and pressure that goes with the competition.
Johan Ackermann’s team have surprised everyone from Doornfontein to Dunedin with the four wins they’ve registered so far. Their two defeats were both away from home, at Loftus Versfeld and King’s Park. But victories against the Cheetahs, Stormers, Blues and Reds has made everyone sit up and take notice.
The team’s philosophy is simple, says Ackermann. “We decided from the outset that we’d take things week by week. Our mantra is simply, ‘stay in the moment’.
“By that we mean playing every minute for what it is and forget about the weather and the referee; those are things we have no control over. Even the result isn’t important ... we decided that we’d enjoy the game first and if we gave it our best the result would take care of itself.”
Indeed, the Lions got lucky against the Blues and Reds, with refereeing decisions seemingly going their way but, as Ackerman points out, there’s nothing he or the players can do about that.
All the Lions can do is play what they have in front of them, and they’d done that brilliantly. They’ve shown fighting spirit, character and guts and a never-say-die attitude and they’ve reaped the rewards.
“So much of what happens on the field is determined by what happens in the week before the game. The preparation is crucial and we’ve always put a lot of emphasis into that. Every player bought into our vision and plan so the focus of everyone has been directed in the same direction. Also, the spirit in the team has been fantastic and you can see the guys are playing for the jersey and for the pride of the union.”
There may not be big names in the team, but Ackerman feels that may be the very reason why the Lions are performing so much better than when they last featured in the competition in 2012.
“The guys are playing for each other, they’re looking after each other. They’re generally a bunch of newcomers to the game at this level so there’s a shared bond.
“Many of them are getting an opportunity for the first time, after being overlooked at other franchises and they’re keen to show they can play at this level.”
The Lions have a bye this weekend, but return to action next Saturday when they host the Crusaders at Ellis Park. Ackermann says the time off has come at the perfect time. “We’ve had six very tough games. This is a young group, who’re experiencing rugby of this standard for the first time, so I’m really pleased with what we’ve achieved.
“If you told me in January that when our first bye came around we’d be four from six I’d have taken it, considering how many debutants we’ve had and that we didn’t play in the competition last year.
“There’s no competition on the planet that’s as demanding as Super Rugby. Every team is strong and capable of beating anyone else on their day. Mentally, too, it’s a huge challenge; it follows from one week to the next and the intensity is incredible.
“It’s great the players can freshen up now and get their minds right again ... because when we return to the field we’ve got a number of big games to play and then we go on tour.”
Ackermann says the most pleasing aspect of the last few weeks is seeing how some of the rookie players have grown.
“Many of the guys have stood up to Boks, Wallabies and All Blacks ... they’ve faced international players almost every weekend and haven’t taken a step back.
“They’ve grown tremendously and now realise they’re good enough. The self-belief they’ve gained will stand them in good stead going forward, but we know there’s a long way to go yet.” - The Star