JOHANNESBURG – A very emotional Johan Ackermann said on Saturday night that he would not let his five years as head coach of the Lions be defined by the Super Rugby final defeat by the Crusaders.
The Lions lost 25-17 at a packed Ellis Park, but fought back from 25-3 down early in the second half to get to within eight points of the now eight-time champions. Ackermann will join Gloucester in England on Thursday.
“I’m very disappointed, the heart is sore,” said a teary-eyed Ackermann, who has played a major role in rebuilding the franchise after they were dumped out of Super Rugby in 2013.
“But, like Jaco (Kriel) said in the week, I’m not going to let one defeat define us as a team. I love every individual in this team, every player.”
The match turned in favour of the visitors when flank Kwagga Smith was red-carded for dangerous play in the 37th minute when he clashed in the air with Crusaders fullback David Havili.
The Lions had to soldier on with 14 men for over 40 minutes.
“It’s not fair on the 62 000 fans to see 14 against 15. I said it earlier this year, that I think it’s best that those sorts of indiscretions are dealt with after the match.
“Why not discipline players afterwards... especially when you don’t know what role momentum and physics played in the incident. Common sense should prevail. This was not dirty play, that’s something different.”
Ackermann added he was proud of the fight shown by his men. “I asked them at halftime to not give up... and they didn’t. I feel if the match went on a little longer, maybe we could have prevailed.
“It shows the character of the players, the men they’ve become. But I also know that at 25-3 down, we had left things a little too late. I’m proud, though, they never stopped fighting.”
Crusaders boss Scott Robertson, in his first year as head coach, described his feelings as “incredible”.
It was the first time in the 21 years of the competition that a team travelled across the Indian Ocean and won the competition.
The Crusaders, like the Lions, lost only once in the regular season, winning 14 of 15 games.
“It’s incredible. We had had to defend so hard, especially in those last 20 minutes when the altitude got to us and we were out on our feet,” he said.
“Definitely, it was our defence that won it for us. We knew we had to get ahead early in the game because if the Lions got ahead, we’d never be able to catch them.”
Robertson, too, said the red-carding of Lions flank Smith played a key role in their getting across the line.
“Kwagga has been unbelievable for them this season, so it’s a real shame it happened in the final. But I thought Jaco (Peyper) handled the situation calmly, and he followed the process. It’s a real shame for the Lions.
“But well done to Johan and his team... he must be very proud of what he has achieved here. And, he’s a wonderful man.”
Ackermann will be replaced by Swys de Bruin as head coach.