Johan Ackermann and Jaco Kriel. Photo: Samuel Shivambu/BackpagePix
JOHANNESBURG - They came up just short last season, but the Lions have more to play for this year other than going all the way this time round; they want to send their coach Johan Ackermann off on a winning note.

That’s the motivating factor pushing the Lions onwards and upwards in this year’s Super Rugby competition, according to injured flanker Jaco Kriel.

The Lions were the surprise package last year and went all the way to the final, but lost in Wellington to the Hurricanes, and this year they’re again well set to compete in the play-offs. They’ve so far won eight of nine matches (before this weekend’s round of games) and comfortably lead the way in the South African Group.

But, while the players will be desperate to go one step further than in 2016 in a few months’ time and win the competition, they are also fully aware that the coming weeks are possibly their last they’ll spend with Ackermann as their coach at the Lions. He’s heading for England and Gloucester at the conclusion of the Super Rugby competition and Kriel says the next few weeks will be about making memories with their coach.

“The players are obviously sad that coach Ackers is leaving; he’s been like a father to a lot of the guys over the years. He’s obviously also played a big part in getting the team to where the Lions are today when you think back to where we were in 2013 (out of Super Rugby).

“But we wish him the best. The challenge for us is not to be negative about the situation,” said Kriel. “We’ve worked hard to get to where we are, to be in this position in Super Rugby, and there’s now an opportunity for us to make it a special year to bank the memories of this journey we’ve been on.”

While Kriel admits the future is uncertain, he’s confident the Lions will continue to grow as a team.

“This whole management team is special and we’ll keep looking forward. We’ll adapt to whatever happens there’s no other way.”

The standout No 6 flanker in South Africa, who’s only played a handful of minutes for the Springboks, since making his debut last year, is hopeful of getting more Test game-time this year, but he knows there are plenty of loose-forwards around for coach Allister Coetzee to consider.

“We all know how much talent there is in the country, especially at loose forward. So many guys are playing well, so you can’t expect anything,” he says. “All I can do is focus on my performance for the Lions, and keep working hard.”

The knee injury suffered against the Jaguares three weeks ago that prevented him touring Australia with his teammates is therefore a major setback.

“Look, it’s not too serious, but it’s extremely frustrating that it happened now. I felt I was playing some good rugby and the team were picking up wins so it’s a bad time for it to have happened.

“But I also know there are hopefully bigger things to come (like maybe playing for the Boks against France in June), so the rest will also do me good.”

Not only has Kriel caught the eye this season, his young loose-forward partner Ruan Ackermann has as well; the coach’s son having taken over the Lions No 7 jersey from the hard-working Warwick Tecklenburg, who’s retired from rugby.

“We miss Warwick,  he had an unbelievable work-rate and did a lot of the donkey work, but Ruan is big and physical, but I think with Warren (Whiteley) we complement each other well.”

After two iffy performances - against the Jaguares and the Western Force and before Saturday's match against the Rebels - expectations are that the Lions will soon hit top form again.

Kriel says Super Rugby followers have yet to see the best of the Lions in 2017.

“We really haven’t played the type of rugby we want to play,” he says.

“Our form hasn’t been great, but we also know that everyone is coming hard at us this year. But we know we can still get a whole lot better and hopefully that will happen soon as the competition gets to the knockout stages.”

Kriel is expected to play again when the Lions return from Australia.

Sunday Independent 

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