‘These guys don’t know how good they actually are.” That’s what Franco van der Merwe told this newspaper just three days before the Lions downed the Stormers in a Super Rugby match at Ellis Park on Saturday.
Perhaps now, after the Lions’ 34-10 victory, those players will believe they’re good enough to face anyone ... and beat them. The Lions lock has been part of a few poor teams over the years, so when he says there is something special in this current side, coached by Johan Ackermann, you’ve got to take notice.
And boy, how special have the Lions been in the last fortnight. First they knocked over the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein and now they’ve beaten the mighty Stormers on home turf. It’s the stuff of dreams and to think Ackermann’s men are an inexperienced bunch at this level and didn’t even play Super Rugby 12 months ago.
Flyhalf Marnitz Boshoff, with his unerring boot, has become an instant hero, but this Lions side are so much more than that. Against the Stormers they played with pride and passion, determination and hunger and didn’t bother to acknowledge they were up against superstars like Schalk Burger, Siya Kolisis, Duane Vermeulen, Jean de Villiers and Gio Aplon. Reputations mean nothing when one team’s simply better than another. And that was the Lions on Saturday night.
It was simple really, as pointed out by Stormers boss Allister Coetzee afterwards. “I don’t think there’s been a better Lions performance. They were clinical in the execution of their game plan, they were physical and accurate at the breakdowns and they had desire; we didn’t. We didn’t have the answers to their questions and they kept us out with ferocious tackling, so all credit to them.”
It was a stunning defensive display by Ackermann’s men, particularly in the second period, but the Lions going 19-0 up inside 20 minutes was just as crucial. “They played clever rugby,” said Stormers captain Jean de Villiers. “They played in the right areas of the field and slotted their kicks ... they didn’t do anything special but they stuck to the basics, taking the points on offer. The more things change in rugby the more they stay the same.”
Lions boss Ackermann was virtually speechless at the final whistle, perhaps as stunned as those who’d witnessed his team’s performance. “I’m humbled by what I saw out there,” he said. “The guys played out of their skins, they showed guts and character. I don’t know what more to say. I’m proud of the effort they put in.
“We played for 20 minutes with 14 men (after Franco Mostert and Julian Redelinghuys were sin-binned in the second half) and we didn’t let the Stormers in. It’s one of the best games I’ve been involved in.”
Ackermann heaped all the praise on his players. “I can coach the system but the commitment comes from the players, especially in defence.”
Captain Warren Whiteley, one of the stars of the Lions effort, said he had no doubt they could upset the Stormers, especially after beating the Cheetahs in round one. “We took a lot of belief out of the first game and we believed we could win again. We never look at a side and think they’re favourites and it doesn’t matter whether we’re written off by certain people. We’re a tight unit who believe in each other and who play for the jersey, for the pride of the Lions.”
Waratahs 43, Force 21; Lions 34, Stormers 10; Sharks 27, Hurricanes 9; Brumbies 17, Reds 27; Highlanders 29, Blues 21; Cheetahs 15, Bulls 9; Crusaders 10, Chiefs 18
Friday: Blues v Crusaders; Rebels v Cheetahs; Stormers v Hurricanes
Saturday: Chiefs v Highlanders; Waratahs v Reds; Force v Brumbies; Bulls v Lions - The Star