Johannesburg - No matter the outcome at Ellis Park this weekend, the Lions will register their best Super Rugby result, with at least six wins in the competition. It is a feat few would have predicted at the start of the year and while they’ll still finish in the lower positions on the log, the competition has been a success for Johan Ackermann and his charges.
Yes, one could argue no team deserves praise for ending a competition with a less than 50 percent win record, but considering the recent history of the Lions, I think one can say they’ve done pretty darn well.
Lions teams with far more Springboks, and experienced players, have done a lot worse and to think Ackermann was really in his first full season as head coach in Super Rugby is quite remarkable. Heck, Ackermann hasn’t had loads of coaching experience, having hung up his boots only a few years ago and he took over a team in some turmoil following the departure of John Mitchell.
Not only did Ackermann have to slog through a dour 2013 when the Lions didn’t even play in the Super Rugby competition, he had to rebuild the confidence of the players and get them believing in their abilities again after the team’s relegation.
Also, and let’s be honest here, he didn’t have the most experienced, and exciting, squad to work with.
But, by backing a talented group of youngsters and giving them the belief they’re as good as the men opposite them, the Lions became a solid outfit again. They made Ellis Park a tough place to play for visiting teams and they more than held their own against the bigger local franchises, home and away. It was really only in Australasia that they were found wanting.
And, even then, they could have won a game or two had they had a bit more luck and a few refereeing calls go their way.
Yes, the Lions are nowhere near being a side ready to challenge for the play-offs and they still have plenty of growing to do, but Ackermann feels that by 2016 they’ll be up there with the other big Super Rugby teams. I tend to agree with him.
There are some mighty fine, and hugely talented, players in the current squad and there’s also reasonable depth, so over time I believe they could become the force they once were. Not only did Marnitz Boshoff become a Springbok this season, but several other players will be knocking on the Bok door in future.
The key, of course, as it’s been for some time now, is to hang on to these players. That will be the Lions’ biggest challenge over the next year or two... keeping their best men in Joburg. Because that’s the only way the Lions will be able to improve on this season’s results and build a team good enough to actually challenge for a place among the contenders.