Johan Ackermann arrives at Ellis Park for Saturday's Super Rugby final against the Crusaders. Photo: Gavin Barker/BackpagePix

JOHANNESBURG - Johan Ackermann will board a plane to Heathrow on Wednesday night to start his new job at Gloucester on Thursday. But before then he will wrap up whatever needs to be done at the Lions Rugby Union and say his goodbyes to the people he says have become family over the last five years.

It won’t be easy ... just as it wasn’t easy on Saturday when he knew it would be his last day in charge of his beloved Lions and then afterwards when he had to accept his side had lost their second Super Rugby final in a row.

Ackermann was teary eyed when he spoke to the media after his side had gone down 25-17 to the Crusaders in front of a packed Ellis Park, but one gets the sense he was more saddened by the fact it was his last day in charge of the Lions than losing the final, his side being reduced to 14 men after the red-carding of Kwagga Smith in the first half.

“I didn’t think it would be so hard ... I thought it would be easier to move on,” he said. “I battled my emotions all day and shed a lot more tears than I thought I would. It’s tough ... and I must be honest, I doubted this morning whether I made the right decision (to move to Gloucester). But then, this is not about me, but what God has got planned for me.

“If it means I must go away to make a difference elsewhere, then I must. But it’s tough ... knowing this is it with this group in the change-room.”

It may not have ended on the high Ackermann, the players, the administrators and the fans wanted, but the Lions, over the last few years have become the leading union in the country and the departing coach should take pride in that.

Ackermann will leave having lost two Super Rugby finals - in a wet and cold Wellington last year and at home this last weekend, against arguably the greatest franchise in world rugby - but his impact on the Lions and South African rugby in general has been massive.

From being nobodies in 2013, the Lions now dominate the make-up of the Springbok squad, they play the most exciting and successful brand of rugby in the country and they can compete with the very best teams in the game, and that includes the so-called untouchables and other-worldly teams from New Zealand.

Last season they lost five Super Rugby matches out of 18; this year they lost two of 18 ... that is a win record of 29 out of 36 matches in the last two seasons. It is a quite phenomenal turn-around for a side that wasn’t even playing Super Rugby four years ago.

“When we went on our first tour together in 2014 (after returning from relegation) 24 out of the 26 guys played in Australasia for the first time. The growth has been phenomenal, now we produce 11, 12 Boks ... and for a coach that is a big highlight, it’s why you do the job,” said Ackermann.

“We also recorded some special victories along the way ... beating the Stormers at Newlands, the Sharks in Durban, the Chiefs in Hamilton, the Crusaders in the play-offs here last year ... and then scoring the most tries last year. Also, seeing these men become quality adults ... it’s been a great journey ... there have been many highlights.”

Stand-in Lions captain Jaco Kriel had to hold back the tears when asked his thoughts of Ackermann. “My emotions are all over the place. Coach is like a father to me ... he’s been a mentor and taught me so much, and all the players will say that. He’s also one of the greatest coaches I’ve worked with ... we’re just sorry we couldn’t get the trophy for him.”

Ackermann may be leaving, but the Lions are going nowhere.

The Star

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