JOHANNESBURG – What must be, must be. That appears to be the stance taken by the Lions and especially their coach Johan Ackermann ahead of today’s Super Rugby semi-final against the Hurricanes at Ellis Park (2.30pm kickoff).
Ackermann, it seems, is content that win or lose today - and qualify for a second successive final or not - he has already achieved what he set out to do with his players since taking charge in 2012. He will leave the Lions when they end their run in the competition to take up a position with Gloucester in England.
In five years the Lions have gone from no-hopers to playing in back-to-back Super Rugby semi-finals. In the past two years they have lost just five regular season games out of 30 and could qualify for their second final in as many years.
The Lions, despite playing in front of their own fans and having not lost at Ellis Park in 15 matches, going back to April last year, will start as the underdogs today. It’s understandable considering the visitors won the title last year and beat the Lions twice last season (they haven’t met this year until now).
The Hurricanes are also a team stacked with All Blacks superstars, including the Barrett brothers Beauden and Jordie, and they’re coming off quality wins against the Crusaders and Brumbies. Ackermann’s men struggled to get past the Sharks in back-to-back matches going into today’s match.
In the build-up to today’s clash Ackermann almost went as far to say he would not have been able to accept it had his side slipped up against the Sharks last weekend (when they won 23-21 with the last kick of the match), but that losing in the semi-finals, to the Canes, would be bearable.
“I know we’ll be judged on results, but for me the growth of the players (here at the Lions) is what matters most,” said Ackermann in the lead-up to this afternoon’s kickoff.
“Where we were and where we are now ... the hard work that everyone has put in and the quality of men the players have become; that is what is most satisfying to me,” said an almost emotional Ackermann this week.
He said he and his players had relaxed more this week, as opposed to last week when they were preparing for the match against the Sharks.
“We’ve enjoyed this week together. I personally haven’t felt a lot of pressure ... we’re playing against a quality side who are the defending champions. All we wanted was a shot at them, and we’ve got that. I believe the guys will express themselves, play with freedom. And, hopefully, we’ll have a chance.”
A Lions team has not beaten the Hurricanes in 10 years, going back to 2007 when the Wellington side were captained by Tana Umaga and the Lions had Andre Pretorius at No 10.
In fact that victory, a 30-7 triumph at Ellis Park, is the only time the Lions have come out on top against the Hurricanes since 2002 when the Cats split up.
That said, the Lions have been sublime playing at home in the last two years and while the Canes have a star-laden team, so, too, do the Lions - 10 current Springboks in the starting team.
They’ve got the pedigree and they’ve got the licence to play with freedom ... now they simply need to go out and enjoy the occasion. And, what will be, will be.
Teams For Ellis Park
Lions: Andries Coetzee, Ruan Combrinck, Lionel Mapoe, Harold Vorster, Courtnall Skosan, Elton Jantjies, Ross Cronje, Ruan Ackermann, Kwagga Smith, Jaco Kriel, Franco Mostert, Andries Ferreira, Ruan Dreyer, Malcolm Marx, Jacques van Rooyen.
Replacements: Akker van der Merwe, Corne Fourie, Johannes Jonker, Lourens Erasmus, Cyle Brink, Faf de Klerk, Rohan Janse van Rensburg, Sylvian Mahuza.
Hurricanes: Jordie Barrett, Nehe Milner-Skudder, Vince Aso, Ngani Laumape, Wes Goosen, Beauden Barrett, TJ Perenara, Brad Shields, Ardie Savea, Vaea Fifita, Sam Lousi, Mark Abbott. Jeff To’omaga-Allen, Dane Coles, Ben May.
Replacements: Ricky Riccitelli, Chris Eves, Loni Uhila, Reed Prinsep, Callum Gibbins, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, Otere Black, Julian Savea.