The man who gave the Lions back their pride


Hours before the Super Rugby final Johan Ackermann was having second thoughts about leaving the Lions for Gloucester.

Inbetween the tears and preparing for the showpiece match in front of a packed Ellis Park, Ackermann questioned if he “made the right decision” leaving a Lions team that he had built into a formidable force with his bare hands over the last five years following the humiliation of relegation in 2013.

“I always thought it would be easy to move on,” Ackermann said. “It’s tough. I must be honest in saying that I doubted if I had made the right decision … it’s harder than what I thought it was going to be.”

Ackermann’s journey with the Lions didn’t have a fairytale ending the 63 000 fanatical supporters were hoping for last Saturday, but that Super Rugby final defeat by the Crusaders shouldn’t detract from the former no-nonsense Springbok lock’s achievements.

A coach’s success is judged on the amount of trophies he won, and rightly so. But sometimes one has to look past the shiny veneer of silverware to actually recognise that what Ackermann’s achieved at the Lions is worth more than silver and gold. Maybe even more than a Super Rugby title …

The Lions were down and out at the end of the 2012 Super Rugby campaign after only winning three matches out of 18 under John Mitchell, and were relegated from the competition in favour of the Southern Kings.

Missing out on Super Rugby in 2013 was a tough pill to swallow, even more so financially. But it gave the Lions a chance to rebuild under new coach Ackermann, who had served as Mitchell’s assistant.

On the field, Ackermann continued to build on the exciting brand of rugby the New Zealander put in place, as well his conditioning plans for the players. But off the field he built a brotherhood and forged a strong bond between the players and the management.

Ackermann, a robust lock in his playing days, has become quite a religious man, and used his faith to inspire his players to express themselves on the field and “bleed for the man next to them”.

Five years later Ackermann took the Lions to two successive Super Rugby finals. The Lions showed that with good conditioning and skill that it’s possible to take on New Zealand teams at their own game. And, if it wasn’t for a slow start and Kwagga Smith’s red card in the 2017 final against the Crusaders, he would have capped off his tenure with a title.

“To think where we were in 2014, after a lot of guys left the union and we get together as a new group …” Ackermann said.

“Courtnall Skosan, Robbie Coetzee, Franco Mostert, Warwick Tecklenburg, Schalk van der Merwe and Willie Britz … Jaco [Kriel] was still a youngster. When we got onto the plane for the first time on tour, 24 of the 26 guys were going to Australasia for the first time.

“Now we’ve got 11 or 12 Springboks … That’s a highlight for me, because we all coach to get the players to the highest position they can be.”

Ackermann’s disappointment of losing the 2017 Super Rugby final in front of his home fans was clear for all to see, as he had this empty expression on his face. His now famous beard wasn’t there to mask the pain. He had experienced that heartache before as a player, when Bryan Habana’s late try helped the Bulls to victory in a Super Rugby final against the Sharks.

But besides a few strong remarks about Smith’s red card, it was clear that Ackermann wasn’t bitter, he was just hurting. He ended up saying the Lions’ failure to clear the final hurdle in 2016 and 2017 won’t change what he and his band of merry men have achieved over the last five years.

And, while he was still somewhat apprehensive about the move to England on Saturday morning, he believes that there is a higher purpose behind his move to Gloucester.

“Jaco [Kriel] said it earlier this week that this team won’t be defined by the result,” Ackermann said.

“This team, I love them to bits, I love each individual and how they supported me as a coach. It’s emotional, because it was the last time I was in the change roomwith these guys. I walk away from special people, a special group of players, special management and a special union.

“It’s tough, and I must be honest in saying that I doubted if I had made the right decision. But it’s not about me, it’s about what God has got planned for me. If it means I must go away to make a difference somewhere else …”

Ackermann left Johannesburg on Wednesday for Gloucester with his trademark smile and dry sense of humour firmly back in place.

The Lions’ loss is certainly Gloucester’s gain. They are getting a top coach on the field, but an even better man off it.

“I trust that I’ve made friends for life, and not just for the period I was here.” More than you know, Akkers, more than you know …

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