JOHANNESBURG - His right-hand man Swys de Bruin was at first unsure what to say. Then, after a pause, he said, “A man of character.”
That’s how Lions assistant coach De Bruin summed up Johan Ackermann when quizzed this week about the man who has led the Lions into back-to-back Super Rugby finals.
The Lions will face off with the sevens-time champions, the Crusaders, from New Zealand on Saturday. It will be the visitors’ 12th appearance in a final; for the Lions it’ll be just their second. Ackermann’s men lost to the Hurricanes in the last match in 2016 in Wellington.
It has been a remarkable two years for the Lions in Super Rugby. Last season they lost four regular competition matches and then the final for a win-loss record of 13-5 and go into Saturday's match having won 16 of 17 matches in this year’s competition. Their win-loss record is identical to that of the Crusaders.
But there’s not only a trophy on the line on Saturday. It’s also the last time Ackermann will be in charge of the Lions as his next job will be with Gloucester in England.
It’s been some journey for the former Springbok lock, who bowed out of professional rugby at the age of 37 years 272 days, making him the oldest player ever in Super Rugby, on March 1, 2008. He was in the winning Sharks team that beat the Bulls 29-15 at Loftus that day. Earlier that year he had also played for the Springboks, also becoming the oldest to do so; in total running out 13 times for the national team.
After his retirement from playing, Ackermann turned to coaching and soon became John Mitchell’s forwards man at the Lions. When the Kiwi left the union in the latter stages of the 2012 Super Rugby season, Ackermann stepped up and took charge.
It was a difficult period for the Lions who’d been relegated from the competition (in favour of the Kings) the next season (2013), but it didn’t bother Ackermann, who decided to build a new team around a new value system: they decided to play enterprising rugby and put smiles on faces. It worked a treat.
“The first thing you need to know about Ackers is that his (Christian) faith is everything to him,” said De Bruin this week. “He’s a man of character ... of honesty ... and trust. He’s got a big heart, and he’s passionate about everything he does, his family, his faith, this team.
“He’s a one-of-a-kind guy, a really unique individual off the field, but he’s also a man with a very good sense of humour.”
De Bruin and Ackermann come a long way together. “I coached him at Griquas around 2003. We badly needed a big powerful lock and he joined us and I think we won all seven games he played for us that season.
"That’s where our journey together began. Then we worked together at the Sharks, too. I suppose we started trusting each other then already ... and when he offered me the job of attack coach here at the Lions in 2012, I jumped at it.”
De Bruin said he has never experienced another coach with the “touch” that Ackermann possesses. “I’ve been involved in coaching for 32 years and I’ve not seen anyone get out of players what Ackers gets out of these guys. He’s a master forwards coach ... the way he motivates them, it’s incredible. They really play for him, they’re like his kids ... that’s why the Lions are such a tight group.
“The great thing is Ackers lets us get on with what we have to do, without interfering. He trusts each guy fully to do his job ... and that makes working and getting along so much easier. It’s been a pleasure working with him over the last five years, it’s been wonderful.”
Injured prop Julian Redelinghuys also pointed to Ackermann’s trust in his players as a key part of his make-up. “He cares for every player and backs them all the way ... he makes every player feel special and important.
“But coach Ackers has also always managed to get the balance right between being serious and having some fun ... he just knows how to make every day a good day. But that said, he’s a stickler for hard work and he likes the guys who put the effort in.”
Ackermann certainly seems to have the magic formula ... and he’ll hope it works wonders again tomorrow.