JOHANNESBURG – Angry, upset, disappointed and emotional... all these words summed up Johan Ackermann on Saturday night.
There was the red card handed to Kwagga Smith, which the coach felt was a debatable call, and the fact his team fell 25-3 behind when the Lions knew they couldn’t give the Crusaders a fast start.
And then there was the fact it was his last game in charge of the Lions, the last time he would spend time in the change-room with players he said have become men in his five years in charge.
It was a day that was meant to end on a fairytale note, but after 80 pulsating minutes of the 2017 Super Rugby final, it was the Crusaders who’d come out on top, winning 25-17.
They became the first side in the 21 years of the competition to cross the Indian Ocean for a final and win it, collecting their eighth title from 12 finals. In so doing, they ended the Lions’ 15-match unbeaten run at home.
And afterwards, even Ackermann, whether he liked it or not, had to concede his Lions were simply outplayed by an all-round superior team on the day.
“The Crusaders are a very good rugby side. They’ve been good the whole year and been very consistent. They had one blemish (in the last round-robin match against the Hurricanes), but for the rest, they were superb,” said Ackermann.
“All credit to them. They did their homework... and we can’t take anything away from them. We can argue about the ‘what ifs’, but tonight, they were well deserved winners.”
Indeed, Smith’s red-carding in the 38th minute cost the Lions dearly – and they soldiered on gallantly with 14 men and certainly finished the match stronger than the visitors did, scoring two converted tries.
But when the Lions flank was sent off, the Crusaders were already 12-3 up and very much in control.
“I asked the players at halftime to not give up and they didn’t... and that was very pleasing. There were a few moments that cost us and allowed the game to slip away, but that’s sport,” said Ackermann.
“The red card obviously cost us, but then their first try (scored by Seta Tamanivalu in the eighth minute) came against the run of play. We were doing all the play, but we lost the ball in the ruck, and I believe that score gave them a confidence boost.
“They also won a few crucial lineouts off us at the end and Rohan Janse van Rensburg went close too, but lost the ball. If we could have scored late on and made it a one-point game, and then maybe force a penalty... but it wasn’t to be. At 25-3 down (in the 53rd minute), we left things too late.
“But playing with 14 men for so long against the Crusaders and to get as close as we did, I’m proud of the guys.”
The red-carding of Smith stands out as the key moment of the match, but Ackermann said he would not blame his flanker for what happened when he and Crusaders fullback David Havili went up for a high ball and collided in the air, with the visiting man coming off second best.
Referee Jaco Peyper, according to the laws of the game, had no choice but to send Smith off.
“I don’t think it’s fair on 62 000 people to pay and then see 14 versus 15. I said earlier this year when Robbie Coetzee was red-carded how I feel... and that is that I believe these matters can be dealt with after a match,” said Ackermann.
“There was no dirty play involved, but rather an interpretation about physics and the law... but common sense says something else.
“I’m not going to judge Kwagga on one incident. He’s a great person and he’s been tremendous for us the whole season. He’s a great character off the field and been man of the match four times this season, and we still love and respect him.”