Whatever the outcome of Saturday’s Super Rugby final, it should still serve as an occasion to celebrate the enduring influence of Johan Ackermann, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
Expect a healthy dose of emotion and sentiment to accompany the Lions’ final flourish against the Crusaders. Regardless of the result, it will be Ackermann’s final game at the helm of the Johannesburg-based side as he now gets set to take up a gig with Gloucester in England.
It’s a massive coaching loss for South African rugby and the Lions, but it should not detract from celebrating what an impact he has had over the past four years in Johannesburg.
In the current rugby landscape, there is nothing unusual about seeing top players and coaches opting to take their talents abroad in pursuit of both personal and professional enrichment, and Ackermann can never be begrudged for the decision he has taken.
In many ways, if the Lions win on Saturday, he would have achieved all that he possibly could at the franchise, and there would be no send-off more fitting than if he gets the opportunity to lift the Super Rugby trophy along with his players.
Don’t for a second underestimate the fact that each and every one of the Lions players will have an extra dose of desire and determination to lift their personal levels of performance, at least in part to provide their beloved coach with the perfect farewell.
After all, in the space of four years, Ackermann has taken the Lions from Super Rugby relegation in 2013 to now standing on the brink of their first-ever Super Rugby title. It’s a barely believable good news story, really.
Indeed, when the Lions were sent unceremoniously into the Super Rugby wilderness soon after the Lions had parted ways with former coach John Mitchell under fractious circumstances, it appeared as if a once-proud union could be heading for a disappointing demise.
Yet, in Ackermann, the Lions found the ideal candidate to build a brand of brothers and re-establish a culture that has inspired a remarkable revolution. It has seen the potential Super Rugby champions-in-waiting establish themselves as the leading side in South African rugby by some distance.
His pioneering approach saw him identify and recruit a host of committed players – many of whom had been discarded by other franchises – while then finding a way to bring out the best in a bunch of relative ‘no-name’ brands.
With a team culture based around a steadfast belief in playing an enjoyable and attractive brand of rugby – one that they primarily hope will honour a powerful faith in a higher power – the Lions have dreamed big, and dazzled their way to dizzying heights.
The brand of rugby embraced has effectively seen the Lions not only match, but often outperform the top New Zealand teams that have so often been seen to be in a class of their own.
Players who were widely unheralded have meteorically risen to now be known as household names, with many having gone on to populate a Springbok side that has been boosted beyond measure by the influence of Lions stars.
Along with the likes of right-hand man Swys de Bruin, assistant JP Ferreira, mental coach Jannie Putter, conditioning guru Ivan van Rooyen and astute CEO Rudolf Straeuli, Ackermann has spearheaded a special four-year period that will forever be remembered at the Lions.
He has shown what is possible, and what South African rugby players are capable of when backed to play with freedom, style and substance in a team environment where faith, camaraderie and a tight-knit culture is put first and foremost.
What a pity it is that Ackermann has not been rewarded with higher honours at Springbok level, but the next period in his coaching journey will provide him with the opportunity to further hone his craft in a different environment.
Yes, his departure is a massive loss for South African rugby. But let’s rather celebrate what he has achieved up to this point, and the fact he could well return in a few years’ time as an even better all-round coach. What a prospect that might be when the Springboks next go in search of a head coach.
Photo: Lee Warren/Gallo Images