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Rugby | Vodacom Super Rugby

Ackermann leaves legacy

The heartbreaking loss in Saturday’s Vodacom Super Rugby final may be in the past, but when Johan Ackermann finally says goodbye to the Emirates Lions this week and heads north for a new challenge at Gloucester, he will leave a legacy of hope and resurgence behind.

The South African A coach’s decision to leave the Lions may still be a hotly debated topic but there is no doubt that Ackermann has revolutionised South African rugby and left a legacy that filters through not only the other Super Rugby sides, but also the Springboks as a whole.

While it is unfair to place the sole responsibility on the shoulders of one man, and Ackermann did learn from the likes of Dick Muir and John Mitchell before him, Ackermann deserves a lot of credit for moulding the Lions from Super Rugby nobodys into an imposing force in world rugby.

But away from the field, it is the culture of brotherhood, the sense of togetherness and the family culture that is so difficult to replicate in modern sporting teams that have made Ackermann a success. The Lions are not simply a team that performs on the field, their actions off the field and the culture they have created will be remembered a lot more than the scoreline at the end of 80 minutes.

And so Ackermann will go, not until Wednesday, with a plethora of farewells for staff and the team planned in the next few days, and head off for a challenge in a totally new environment that he hopes will better him as a coach and a mentor, in a tough series of competitions where few South Africans have succeeded before.

The elusive victory in Super Rugby may have not been meant for him – at least not yet – but there is little doubt that the Lions team that Ackermann leaves behind is stronger and deeper than it was when he found it, and Gloucester will be hoping he does the same for them.

Ackermann found that magical formula – taking a bunch of players that other unions didn’t want – and moulding them into a success story. The Bulls and Sharks both shunned players who are now the Lions stars to their detriment, and as Ackermann’s team soared, the flaws in Pretoria and Durban’s recruitment and player management processes were exposed.

For Ackermann there are many victories to savour, and many to remember, but it is the emotional attachment to the Lions that will make the journey so difficult for him when he boards the plane on Wednesday night.

As he admitted, there is a lot to be thankful for.

“There is a lot. To think where we were in 2014 after a lot of guys left the union and we got together as a new group. There were guys like Courtnall Skosan, Robbie Coetzee, Franco Mostert, Warwick Tecklenburg, Schalk van der Merwe, Willie Britz, Jaco was here from the juniors and still a youngster.

When we got onto the plane for the first time to tour, 24 guys out of the 26 played in Australasia for the first time. That growth of the team – now we’ve got 11, 12 Springboks if you include every guy who played in the last two years. So that is a highlight for me, because I think we all coach to get the players to the highest possible place that they can.

“I hope that the players’ enjoyed the time, and said we worked hard but we loved to come to the union. That was always my ambition.

“And then some special victories – we had a lot of firsts. The first time we beat the Stormers at Newlands, the first time we beat the Sharks at King’s Park, the first time we beat the Chiefs in Hamilton, the Crusaders last year in the playoffs. There were so many firsts. We scored the most tries in the season last year.

“There are a lot of highlights but seeing these men become quality players and people off the field. A lot of them got married and got children now and seeing how they’ve become adults and how they treat life. So ja, it was a great journey with a lot highlights from individuals and collectively as a team. What we had to achieve together – records that have been broken and it was an honour.

“I also want to thank the media for always supporting us and thank the supporters, the sponsors and like I always said, thank God for the journey, how He honoured us and how He stayed with us and honoured His word that this union would become a strength again.”

Ackermann admitted he never realised when he made the decision to accept Gloucester’s offer that he would struggle so much to leave.

“I didn’t think so. I said to the players there are a lot of things in life that you don’t understand. That is the reality of life. You’re in a car accident and you don’t understand why, someone passes away close to you and you don’t understand why but the sun will shine tomorrow.

"I always thought it would be easy to move on, but I really battled with my emotions today. From this morning when I stood up, and I shed a lot more tears than where I started. With this group in the changeroom as well, was quite special, so it’s tough.

“I must be honest if I said I doubted whether I made the right decision this morning. But it isn’t about me, but it is about what God has planned for me and if it means I must go away to make a difference. I trust in Swys (de Bruin). I told him now, I believe that Swys can even go the step further. There is a quality group that is going to support him and being behind him. It wasn’t easy, never that it would have been easy, but it was harder than I thought it would be.

“We have to celebrate together and I trust that I’ve made players and friends for life, not just this time I was here at the Lions.”

Asked what he would miss the most, he laughed and said his forwards. And it’s understandable why.

“I really love my forwards. Because I’m the forwards coach, but also because we always hold a great forwards camp there in January/February, in the bushveld. There where nothing can break – just the glasses but we’ve made them plastic. I am going to miss that a lot. We’ve had a lot of special times. It doesn’t matter, from Rose who makes coffee for us, the excitement and the smile when she brings us coffee. Johantjie who makes sure the equipment is always ready. There are always smiles and positivity. I’m going to miss my management and players the most, because they supported me always.”

Ackermann will head north and Swys de Bruin’s tenure starts now. But as much as De Bruin has been an integral part of the journey so far, he will know more than most, he has big boots to fill.

Lions spectators have revelled in their team’s success and De Bruin’s biggest challenge will not only be to sustain it, but to take them that elusive step further that Ackermann wasn’t able to.

It will be tough.


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