JOHANNESBURG - Lions will never have a better chance to win Super Rugby. And they need to make sure they seal the deal on Saturday.
Not only would it be the perfect send-off for inspirational coach Johan Ackermann, who has played a key role in turning the franchise around, but the long-suffering fans also need to be rewarded for the years of pain and agony they have endured supporting their team.
In this week, leading up to Saturday’s home final at Ellis Park against the Crusaders, we should not forget where the Lions once stood in this competition.
Super Rugby is in its 21st season and bar the semi-final showings by the Cats (which included Cheetahs players) of Laurie Mains in 2000 and 2001, the Lions, on their own, have never come close to winning the trophy; until last year, and now again. But not only did the Lions not push for the title for many seasons, they were cellar-dwellers on too many occasions.
A look back at the history of the competition reveals some scary records, like: the Lions having the most consecutive losses in a season (13 in 2010), the Lions have the most consecutive losses (17, from May 15, 2009 to March 12, 2011), scoring the least number of tries in a season (13 in 2007), and having the fewest number of wins in a season (0 in 2010).
The Lions have finished in the bottom three on the table on too many occasions to remember - and through it all, the fans have stood by their team.
They have been ridiculed and mocked like no other supporters in South Africa. And the coaches have come and gone ... Frans Ludeke, Eugene Eloff, Tim Lane, Chester Williams, Dick Muir, John Mitchell ... some have fought back to win elsewhere, but others have moved on.
It’s been a hard and demanding slog for the fans over the last number of years, but also for those men and women working tirelessly behind the scenes at the union, the players who always gave their best, but just couldn’t get on the right side of the result.
Heck, in 2010 when the Lions failed to win a game they scored 65 wonderful points in round two against the Chiefs at Ellis Park, but the visitors scored 72. Nothing, it seemed, would go the Lions’ way.
Then up stepped Ackermann. It was something of a gamble appointing him head coach after the Lions’ breakup with Mitchell, as the former Bok lock hadn’t been a head coach anywhere else. But he knuckled down, got some rejected players at other unions to join the Lions and he built a team that played with freedom and belief. Not even the fact the Lions were kicked out of Super Rugby in 2013 deterred him - Ackermann was on a mission to inspire a nation.
The departing Lions boss often talks about what his team stand for, and that is to honour God and inspire people. Well, after coming up short in the final in Wellington last season, it’s time to bag the title this time.
Coaches and players of Super Rugby teams in South Africa don’t often get second chances; but the Lions have exactly that this week: a second opportunity to win the biggest prize in international provincial rugby. After all the pain over the years - for the union, the players and administrators, the fans - it’s time the Lions had their moment. It’s time their inspirational performances on the field went to the next level.