JOHANNESBURG - There should be no doubt about who the favourites are to come out on top in the Super Rugby semi-final at Ellis Park on Saturday, according to Lions boss Johan Ackermann.
“We’re playing against the defending champions, who had a great win against the Crusaders (two weekends ago), and beat the Brumbies away last week,” said Ackermann about the Hurricanes, whom they face on Saturday.
“Last year’s results make them the favourites, definitely,” added the Lions coach. “They’re a quality side and they proved it in 2016. The challenge for us is to compete against them this time.”
In 2016 the Hurricanes came to Ellis Park and whipped the Lions 50-17 and in the final, albeit in Wellington, they won again, 20-3. Their overall record against the Lions is very impressive - having lost just once in 14 matches since 2002 when the Lions split from the Cats.
That said, the Lions are at home, playing in front of their own fans, and at a venue where they haven’t lost in 15 matches, going back to late April last year - that’s 15 months. Ironically, the last team to beat Ackermann’s men in Joburg were the Hurricanes.
“We haven’t talked about last year’s games between the teams, we haven’t looked at them (on video) and there’s been no talk about revenge or anything like that,” said Ackermann. “This is a new game and the slate is clean, it’s zero-zero.
“Things have changed in both teams since last year and some guys played last year who aren’t playing now. The reality is this is about now, not last year, and if we want a shot at the title we have to get over the hurdle in front of us.”
Saturday's match will be the first this season against a New Zealand team for the Lions, something many critics have said will count against Ackermann’s men, but if truth be told, his side were emphatic winners against the Chiefs, Blues, Highlanders and Crusaders last season, with just the Canes getting the better of them.
“We have that experience (from last year), so the players will be able to tap into that knowledge,” said Ackermann. “We’ve got a proud home record here (since losing to the Canes last year), and have one shot at them this year. All I can ask of the players is to give it their best.
“The players know they didn’t perform up to standard last weekend (against the Sharks in the quarter-final), so it is up to them, every starting member and everyone on the bench, to lift their game if we’re going to give one of the best teams, if not the best, in the competition a run.”
Captain Jaco Kriel agreed with Ackermann that the visitors are the favourites, but he said his players were excited to be in a second Super Rugby semi-final.
“All the pressure was on us last week (against the Sharks), this time it’s on the Hurricanes, who’re the defending champions.
“But we’re excited about the challenge. We had a hard look at ourselves after the Sharks game, but put it behind us quickly. Being here again, with another shot at the final is just special.”
Are the Lions favourites or underdogs then? Hurricanes coach Chris Boyd would probably also opine that the opposition, the Lions, are the favourites to win through to the final.
Saturday's match is a tough one to call, but considering the Lions struggled past the Sharks in the last fortnight and the Canes won well (against the Crusaders and Brumbies) it’s understandable why Ackermann has talked up the Canes.