JOHANNESBURG - Outgoing Lions coach Johan Ackermann will soak up every moment he has with his players this week, leading up to his last game in charge of his team - in the match he always hoped he’d have: the Super Rugby final at a sold-out Ellis Park.
“There’s one more game to go and this week I’m going to take it all in,” he said after his team qualified for their second successive final, against the Crusaders this weekend. A year ago the Lions lost to the Hurricanes, who they beat 44-29 in spectacular fashion in Saturday's semi-final. The seven-time champion Crusaders beat the Chiefs 27-13 in the other semi to qualify for the final.
Head coach Ackermann will leave the Lions next week after five years in charge, to take up a position with Gloucester in England.
“It’s a privilege to be in the Super Rugby final. It’s exactly 10 years since I experienced the disappointment of losing as a player (for the Sharks against the Bulls)... this time I want to finish as a winner, Ackermann said.”
The Lions had to pull out all the stops to get the better of the Hurricanes on Saturday after trailing 22-3 just before halftime. But a try-saving tackle by Kwagga Smith on Jordie Barrett, two lineout steals on the Lions’ tryline by Franco Mostert, and a ball steal at a ruck by captain Jaco Kriel stemmed the tide and allowed the home team to score next and in total 41 points to seven in the second half to win a thriller.
“It’s unreal what has happened. This is what I always hoped for when I was to finish here (as coach of the Lions) ... to play (a final) in front of our own fans. This has been a special journey, with a special bunch of men," Ackermann said.
“My dream was to finish here at home, at a full Ellis Park ... you can’t ask for more than that. Getting 60 000 fans in here will be the ultimate. To know where we were in 2013 (out of Super Rugby) to where we are now ... all those memories along the way, what we have gone through, those are the emotions going through me.”
The Crusaders will be only the second New Zealand team the Lions will have played against this year, after facing the Hurricanes in the semi-finals. They will be formidable opponents who, like the Lions, lost only once in the regular season, with their steely defence the hallmark of their game. The Lions though did get the better of them at Ellis Park in last year's quarter-finals, but Ackermann said that match would have no bearing on what happens this weekend.
“They’ve changed since last year, as have we, and so, too, were the Hurricanes a different team. The reality is the Crusaders are a quality side; there are All Black players all over the place ... just look at their background, their history. It’s going to come down to one 80-minute performance," Ackermann said.
“But we’ve got a lot of belief in our own abilities, no matter the opposition, so again all I can ask of the players is to give it their best.
“We will reset on Monday. Right now we haven’t achieved anything, we haven’t won a trophy yet. They are also going to fight to the end.”
Stand-in Lions skipper Kriel said it was hard to describe his happiness after his team’s come-from-behind victory against the Canes. “It’s the best feeling I’ve had in quite a while. I can’t explain it actually ... the character of the guys to come back in that second (half). It just shows how much we care for each other ... it’s really inspirational," Kriel said.
The good news is that Ackermann will in all likelihood have a fit squad to pick from for the final. Only regular captain Warren Whiteley is expected to miss out, even though Ackermann said last week he would be assessed today.