Johan Ackermann says the Cheetahs may experience an added element of pressure as they head into the playoffs on an unbeaten streak, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
The Lions coach can speak from experience. Last year, the Johannesburg-based side encountered a similar scenario when they cruised into the playoffs on a run of 10 successive wins.
Just a few weeks before their semi-final, the Lions had also secured an emphatic 73-31 victory over the Cheetahs and were expected to have little trouble in overcoming the selfsame opponents in the knockout stage.
However, the game certainly didn’t go according to script, with the Lions having to rely on a late surge to secure a hard-fought 43-33 victory.
In an ironic turnaround in fortunes, this year it has been the Cheetahs that have surged through the group stages undefeated, and they will head into this Saturday’s semi-final as favourites at the Free State Stadium.
Ackermann said they certainly had plenty of respect for a powerful Cheetahs team that has been in such imperious form this season, but he also highlighted the different pressure dynamic that could come into the equation.
‘The Cheetahs have been unbeaten throughout this season, and that does add another burden of pressure to some degree … It is something that can play in the back of your mind because if you lose the playoff game, then that unbeaten streak actually means nothing. Having said that, it will be a great moment for them in front of their home crowd, and they will be highly motivated.’
Despite heading into a knockout clash, both the Lions and Cheetahs have indicated that they will not move away from their ambitious brand of rugby that has seen the two teams each tally an impressive total of 49 tries this season.
‘I do think [coach] Franco [Smith] will encourage the Cheetahs to continue playing the way they have all season, which brought them so much success, and we won’t change the way we play,’ Ackermann commented. ‘Franco has made it clear that he wants the Cheetahs to play an exciting brand of rugby, and so it should be a quality encounter.’
Although the Lions have had the option of calling on Springbok scrumhalf Faf de Klerk for this Saturday’s playoff, Ackermann opted to retain Ross Cronjé at scrumhalf, with the former set to play off the bench.
The Lions coach explained the reasoning behind that selection decision: ‘Faf played a lot of rugby with the Boks and he was a bit tired and sore when he came back to us. He needed a bit of time to recover, while we’d already been training with Ross, so we felt it best to keep his combination going with Jaco [van der Walt].
'Faf is like an energiser bunnny, though, and we know that he will lift the energy level when he comes off the bench.’
Photo: Johan Pretorius/Gallo Images