Currie Cup

Lions a team of happy 'rejects'

2014-10-22 21:00
Johan Ackermann (Gallo Images)

Johannesburg - They may be facing the toughest game of the year this coming weekend when they pack down in the Currie Cup final, but for Johan Ackermann’s band of 'rejects', the world is at their feet at the moment.

It may be harsh to call them 'rejects', a term that is widely joked about in the Golden Lions team at the moment, according to the website.

But it is a term that sums up how modern professional rugby sometimes becomes a glass ceiling for players and how just a new opportunity, giving a player a chance to redeem themselves can make all the difference.

Ackermann and Swys de Bruyn themselves took over in a cloud of uncertainty – the Lions were on their way out of Super Rugby, not knowing what the future would hold.

An exodus of players and rumours of bankruptcy at the union clouded things even more.

But slowly they built a team from scratch, taking in the players that other unions didn’t want, didn’t see a place for or who were just out in the wilderness.

And from there they built a family unit, a team that very much plays for each other – one which is tightly knit and really enjoys their rugby.

So many of the players come from other parts where they weren’t wanted, many of them the envy of the coaches that let them go in the first place.

The powerful front row comprises Schalk van der Merwe (formerly Free State), Robbie Coetzee (formerly Blue Bulls) while the third member Ruan Dreyer is home grown from his high school days at Monument Hoërskool, Franco Mostert is an ex-Bull, Martin Muller used to play for the Cheetahs.

And so it goes on.

Ross Cronje (Sharks), Marnitz Boshoff (Bulls), Courtnall Skosan (Bulls), Howard Mnisi (Sharks/Griquas), Ruan Combrinck (WP) and Warren Whiteley (Sharks/EP) all are players that were at other unions but finally found their home at the Lions and with much success.

Whatever happens this weekend in the final, Ackermann knows all too well the team is a success just by the way they play for each other.

"The players are a group who have bought into a culture.

"We’ve all come through hard times at other unions and we accept each other for that.

"We’re here to work hard and there aren’t egos in our game.

"We are a family and we enjoy each others’ conversation," Ackermann explains, adding that some of these players just needed a chance and someone to believe in them.

"Rugby is a funny game.

"Sometimes you get a guy who sits behind somebody and he doesn’t get a chance.

"I know of a number of Springboks I played with who sat behind somebody and when they got a chance because someone got injured, the guy played 50 or 60 Tests because he got the opportunity and he took it.

"We were fortunate that some of those players – guys like Akker van der Merwe, Franco Mostert, Ross Cronje, Howard Mnisi – were available and they grabbed the opportunity.

"The player must still take that opportunities. We need to work with these players and back them, and not drop them after one game and say to them they’re not good enough.

"It is a fine line though, but it is credit to the players, they worked hard.

"Earlier in the season they bought into the vision, and they bought into the process.

"We gave the season as a team to the Lord. We said we will go down fighting and we will trust in Him.

"He will give us the strength to go through regardless of the result."

There is no doubt the Lions are enjoying their rugby, something that the coaching team should take much credit for.

Rather than subscribe to the South African rough and tumble game plan built around a kicking game, the Lions have attacked space, believed in what they do and backed themselves. They may not win every game but when they do get on song it is a sight to behold.

The philosophy is simple, according to Ackermann, you have to play to your strengths.

"First of all we play the game because we want to enjoy it. You don’t want a prop or a lock in the team and you just expect them to scrum, or win the lineout.

"That is why they play the game, they want to enjoy it. We have to look at our team profile. If you’ve got eight forwards 2metres tall and 120 kg, you’ll probably want to try and run over guys and play up front.

"If you’ve got the big guys at the back and Fijian size wings, then you’d want to smash guys and run over everybody.

"We have players with speed and feet. Our loosies are our strength, our props can pass the ball, and our locks can play for 80 minutes – a guy like Franco Mostert is a ball player.

"You have to look at your team profile and adapt.

"You pick it up quickly if you spend time with the guys on what they can do and what they enjoy. These guys enjoy running with the ball.

"In saying that, there were games and they are there where we can be more direct. But that is the easier way, we’ve adapted to the running style.

"The Waratahs are similar, they won Super Rugby and they stuck to something they believed in.

"Everyone said they perhaps played too much rugby but they stuck to something they believed in."

Western Province’s home ground advantage makes them odds-on favourites this weekend, but whatever happens in the final, Ackermann has crafted out a happy team that plays positive winning rugby, and for that he should be applauded.


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