JOHANNESBURG - Johan Ackermann is adamant the only advantage his team will have against the Sharks in the Super Rugby quarter-finals this coming Saturday is the fact the Lions will be playing at home and in front of their own fans. For the rest, it’s back to square one and starting from scratch.
The Lions secured top spot overall thanks to their 27-10 win against the Sharks in the final pool game of the competition in Durban on Saturday night after the Crusaders had lost to the Hurricanes earlier in the day.
Ackermann’s men will now remain on home turf for as long as they stay in the competition.
Saturday’s quarter-final against Robert du Preez’s men will be the third meeting between the teams this season. Earlier this year Ackermann’s team won 34-29 in a tight encounter at Ellis Park and on Saturday, in Durban, they comfortably won by 17 points.
The Lions boss though feels his side won’t necessarily have a psychological advantage over the Durbanites because of those two wins.
“Whether it is the Sharks or if it was going to be the Highlanders, or whoever, the team coming here is going to give it everything. They’re going to throw everything at us, and we’re going to have to do the same. It’s a knockout game. The only difference really is we’re at home,” Ackermann explained.
He did, however, say that the win in Durban would give his players the necessary confidence going into the clash.
“One has to take confidence out of that and also the joy of finishing first on the log,” he said.
With 65 log points from 14 wins out of 15, the Lions finished on top of the overall log, with the Crusaders second, with 63 points, also from 14 wins. The Stormers and Brumbies will also host quarter-final clashes after winning their respective conferences.
After falling at the last hurdle last season - to the Hurricanes in the final in Wellington - having finishing second overall, the Lions now have a wonderful opportunity to make up for that defeat and win the title so many feel they deserved last season. Ackermann said he agreed his team were in a better position to win the competition now than they were last year.
“It’s great knowing we don’t have any more away games, that there’s no more travel involved ... what happens from now on is purely in our own hands. But, there are no log points to play for anymore; we’re going back to zero from now on.
“I’m proud of what we’ve achieved this season, topping the log, getting home play-off matches ... and those are all positives, but we know the Sharks fairly well now and we know they’re going to test us on Saturday. The last game at Ellis Park was a real dog-fight, and I expect the quarter-final to be the same.”
Ackermann reiterated that nothing should be read into the teams’ two previous meetings this season, both won by the Lions.
“The Crusaders beat us at Ellis Park (43-37 in round six) last year, then we beat them (42-25 in the quarter-finals) ... Saturday’s match is a new 80 minutes.
“Both coaches will look at their tactics and see where they can adjust. After 80 minutes the side that makes the least mistakes under pressure, the side that concedes the least penalties, and whose discipline is best, will win. We’re starting fresh on Monday and won’t look back at the previous games.”
There is no denying though the Lions will be the far more relaxed and happier team. After all, they haven’t lost a Super Rugby match at home since the end of April last year; a run of 13 matches unbeaten.
The Sharks have a monumental task ahead of them if they’re to end that run.