Morgan Bolton.
Morgan Bolton.
Lions' coach Johan Ackermann talks to his players. Photo: Gavin Barker, BackpagePix
Lions' coach Johan Ackermann talks to his players. Photo: Gavin Barker, BackpagePix

“All the players are feeling it a bit and there will be a lot of emotions going through us as we get closer to the game, but for me, it’s a little different. I’m not only going to have to say goodbye to my coach, but my dad as well,” said Ruan Ackermann earlier this week, as reported by The Star.

Ackermann jr understates the impact his father, Johan, has had on the Lions.

We can forgive him that he forgot to mention that it will be an emotional farewell for all of the team’s supporters as well.

Few would have guessed it would be so.

When Johan Ackermann took over as head coach at the latter part of 2012, there were many a furrowed brow and shrugging of shoulders.

Who was this untested, unheralded unknown replacing the coaching leviathan that was John Mitchell, foretold back then as the chosen one who would lead the union to the resplendent glory days of old?

To be sure, Ackermann’s exploits as a player were well recorded.

Those days saw him represent the Bulls, Lions, Cats, Sharks and Northampton Saints, while he made 13 appearances for the Springboks. Early in his career, he was also shamed by being banned for two years after testing positive for anabolic steroids in the late ’90s.

His coaching experience stretched as far as him being the forwards coach and assistant to Mitchell during his tenure at the Lions.

But the Kiwi, reportedly, did not endear himself to the players, a revolt ensued and another disastrous Super Rugby campaign – the Lions won only three games that season and finished last in the standings again – saw the New Zealander manoeuvred out of the top job. 

Lions coach Johan Ackermann and flyhalf Elton Jantjies. Photo: Muzi Ntombela, BackpagePix

The deathblow was completed when the Lions were relegated to make way for the Kings.

A raft of Lions players, with no other choice, either retired, relocated or were loaned out to other unions, leaving behind youngsters and undesirables.

Only the Lions and their fans will ever know the ignominy of automatic relegation without the recourse of playoff redemption.

It still leaves the faintest bitterness on the back of the palate.

Ackermann succeeded into this hot mess and began rebuilding a side devoid of team culture, faith in the union or themselves.

That discontent had long ago trickled down into the support base – compounded by the diaspora of 2013 – so much so that revealing allegiance to the Lions was only ever uttered in hushed tones behind a sardonic smile.

Mitchell is often credited as the architect of the current Lions set-up, having developed the infrastructures and playing mentality at the union that is currently on display.

But make no mistake, this is an overestimation of his role bordering on hyperbole.

When the Lions run out to compete in their second Super Rugby final in as many years tomorrow at Ellis Park against the Crusaders, it will be the team that Ackermann and his technical staff built from the ground up.

It will be HIS team, remembered as such forever and a day. It will be because of him that pride and joy, in the players and supporters alike, has been restored. 

Swys de Bruin will take over from Johan Ackermann. Photo: Samuel Shivambu, BackpagePix

His tactical acumen and willingness to reinvent the Lions and develop a brand of rugby that warms the cockles of the heart, will be his achievement alone.

Tomorrow will mark Ackermann’s last game in charge of HIS team before he leaves to help out a struggling Gloucester in England. 

In his place, assistant Swys de Bruin will take over and unlike at the end of the previous regime, he will find a thriving team and a healthy infrastructure to build on and make his.

To Ackermann, as Lions fans, there are no words that can emote our appreciation. We hope you all the best in your future endeavours. We suspect we will see you again though in the future, albeit it as the man behind the scenes for the Green and Gold.

Whatever may happen tomorrow, win or lose, you are a legend of our little Pride.

Ackers, thanks for all the memories.

The Star