JOHANNESBURG – Former coach Johan Ackermann has backed his old team, the Lions, to beat the Waratahs this weekend and go through to their third Super Rugby final.
Ackermann led the team to the final in 2016 and last year - against the Hurricanes and Crusaders, respectively - before leaving the franchise for a position with Gloucester in England.
This year, under new coach Swys de Bruin, the Lions again won their conference and qualified for a home semi-final, against the Waratahs, at Ellis Park this weekend.
Ackermann, who has watched proceedings from afar for the first time in seven years, said he had been impressed with the team’s showing.
“They’ve made us all proud once again,” said the former Bok lock. “It’s a great achievement yet again, to make the semis the Lions have again been the consistent performers in South Africa, flying the flag high.
“Their character and the culture the guys have created over the years carried them through what at times was a challenging competition.”
The Lions qualified for the play-offs despite winning only nine of 16 games and also had to play without several first choice players, like Warren Whiteley, Jaco Kriel, Malcolm Marx, Ross Cronje, Courtnall Skosan and Lionel Mapoe, for a big part of the competition.
Ackermann said the Waratahs, who came from behind to beat the Highlanders in their quarter-final last weekend, wouldn’t be able to keep up with the Lions this Saturday.
“There’s a calmness in this Lions team; they’ve got so much experience,” he said.
“They’re also a patient team, and don’t panic when they go behind. They know what their capabilities are and have shown they can go into an extra gear in the last 20 minutes. The Waratahs won’t be able to keep up with the pace over the 80 minutes; and they won’t come back like they did against the Highlanders.
“I know we lost to the Crusaders at home in the final last year, but I still feel no one will beat the Lions at home in a play-off; the red card set us back last year.”
Ackerman said the first semi-final between the Crusaders and Hurricanes in Christchurch was far tougher to call.
“Well, obviously the whole of South Africa, or rather the Lions fans, will be rooting for the Canes and hoping they pull off a surprise, and that’s not impossible.
“They’ve got fantastic backs, world class players, but the big question is, will they be able to match the Crusaders pack, that’s where their strength is. If the Hurricanes forwards don’t pitch, it’ll be one-way traffic. It’ll be a close one, but I think the home team should win it.”
Looking at the Super Rugby season as a whole, Ackermann said it was time for the other franchises in South Africa to come to the party now.
“One of the main reasons why the All Blacks and New Zealand rugby is so strong is because all their franchises, except maybe the Blues, are very competitive.
“They’re all consistently good and play at a high level, with not much separating them.
“In South Africa, that is not the case. For the last three years the Lions have almost always been the favourite to win a local derby match; and that’s not good enough. There should be greater competition between the local teams; we need to get the balance in strength back.
“Only when we’ve got four strong teams, of equal strength, playing against each other will we get on the right path.”
Ackermann added: “I suppose over all it was an up and down season in Super Rugby some teams really let themselves down.
“The Bulls, Sharks and Stormers will look back and feel they could have done better; the Lions will be happy because they developed a new captain in Franco Mostert and brought through several new stars this season.
“They also had to do without a number of senior players for long periods.”
The Lions kick-off against the Waratahs at 3pm on Saturday.