Johan Ackermann is building something with substance at the Lions, writes MARK KEOHANE in Business Day.
The Cheetahs have been an embarrassment this season, conceding 443 points, the Sharks a shambles, and the Vodacom Bulls have been bloody disappointing.
The Stormers have been as good as they can be, given their attacking limitations against the top-tier teams, and the Lions have finally found the roar of the old Transvaal team that won the inaugural Super 10 final against Auckland.
It’s taken 20 years for the Lions and it’s been a painful 20 years.
Yet no sooner had the Lions won for the first time in the competition’s history against the Waratahs, and won a franchise record nine victories in a season, and the social media clever fellas were urging the South African Rugby Union to appoint Ackermann to the Bok management.
Why? Ackermann is doing to the Lions what Heyneke Meyer did at the Bulls; he is building something with substance, something that has taken time and something that can only get stronger.
Meyer took a decade to confirm the Bulls as the dominant franchise in Super Rugby. Ackermann has the potential to achieve similar results and he must be encouraged to focus exclusively on turning the Lions into a franchise that in the next three to five years is expected to make the play-offs and doesn’t celebrate the possibility of making a first ever play-off appearance.
It's far more beneficial to South African rugby that the Lions get stronger and that Ackermann builds a track record as a winner with the franchise. The investment in Ackermann must be at regional level first. Let him get on with it as he has done in the past two seasons.
Ellis Park, one of the game’s great stadiums, will only regain its aura as a venue that haunts visiting teams with continued Lions success and increased crowd numbers. And that will come with a home-winning habit.
The coach clearly understands the game because, for all the Lions attack, there's as much attention and discipline given to defence.
The Sharks coaching staff can learn from their Lions counterparts when talking about a brand of rugby that will entertain and bring reward in the results column.
The Sharks, to the man, spoke a glorious game but the statistics of having conceded 43 tries summarises their season.
It’s been a disgrace and the display against a Rebels team, reduced to 14 players for 50 minutes, will have supporters cashing in their season tickets; not queuing to get one.
The Lions, this season, showcased what's possible, but for all the cheerleading. what we’ve seen at Ellis Park has not been revolutionary.
The Lions are simply playing intelligent and good rugby, the kind we see in three of the five New Zealand franchises every season.
The challenge in this country is that we consistently have three of our five teams playing this kind of rugby instead of the Lions this season and perhaps the Stormers the next.
The Cheetahs have thrilled in the past with an all-out attack game but it came at the expense of defence. The Sharks and Stormers have prospered with defence-orientated approaches that stifled the creative.
And despite the stereotyping, the only South African franchise that got the balance in attack and defence right was Meyer’s Bulls when winning three titles in four years. Those Bulls teams scored plenty of tries and played some exceptional rugby.
South African players have skill. You only have to watch schools rugby every weekend. It’s the mindset of the coaching staff that has too often stifled the natural skill of our players.
I’ve never subscribed to the view that there is a South African way of playing and a New Zealand way of playing. There is an effective and intelligent way of playing rugby and if the coaching staff have the intelligence to combine a game plan approach to suit the natural strengths of their respective squads, you’d see greater skill in the South African regional game.
The Lions are proof that you don’t have to compromise physicality or defence to want to back the skill factor within the squad.
There's a lesson in that for all of our franchise coaches. Similarly for Meyer at Test level.
The talent is there but it’s the rugby intelligence of the professional coaches – read the lack of it – that has ruined the attacking potential of the South African regional game.
Ackermann, on that score, has been a revelation – and an unlikely one given his playing pedigree as a no-nonsense lock forward whose game was fashioned on his strength more than subtle or expansive skills.
The Lions coach has done his talking through the performance of his players. You don’t have to ask Ackermann about his rugby philosophy; you only have to watch his team play.
There's a lesson in that for other South African regional coaches, most notably those in Durban.
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