Ackers: I never knew leaving would be this hard
Lloyd Burnard - Johannesburg
Johannesburg - On Saturday morning, hours before the Super Rugby final, Johan Ackermann woke up with a heavy heart knowing that this would be his final day as Lions coach.
The emotion was overwhelming, and the man who has revolutionised Lions rugby confirmed afterwards that he had "shed a lot more tears than I thought I would."
Ackermann has got this Lions team so close to being a championship winning side, but on Saturday they lost their second Super Rugby final in as many years when they were beaten 25-17 by the Crusaders at Ellis Park.
These Lions were desperate to give Ackermann the send-off he deserved, and captain Jaco Kriel was devastated.
Ackermann, too, was visibly shaken after the match. The hurt of the loss was written all over his face.
The former Springbok lock, who has done a sterling job with the Lions over the past five years, is on his way to Gloucester this week.
And, in a quite revealing post-match press conference at Ellis Park, he revealed that it was a decision he wasn't necessarily at ease with.
"I always thought it would be easy to move on," he said.
"I really battled my emotions today, from this morning when I woke up.
"It’s tough. I must be honest in saying that I doubted if I had made the right decision this morning ... it's harder than what I thought it was going to be."
Looking back, Ackermann says there are many highlights from his time at the Lions.
Beating the Stormers at Newlands, the Sharks at Kings Park, the Chiefs in Hamilton, the Crusaders in last year's quarter-finals, setting a record for the most number of tries in a season ... how much this side has improved under Ackermann is astounding.
"To think where we were in 2014 after a lot of guys left the union and we get together as a new group," Ackermann said.
"Courtnall Skosan, Robbie Coetzee, Franco Mostert, Warwick Tecklenburg, Schalk van der Merwe, Willie Britz … when we got onto the plane for the first time on tour, 24 of the 26 guys were going to Australasia for the first time.
"That growth of the team, now we’ve got 11 or 12 Springboks, that’s a highlight for me because I think we all coach to get the players to the highest position they can be."
But it is the off-field interactions that Ackermann will miss more than anything.
"Most of all, seeing these men become quality people off the field," he said.
"A lot of them got married, a lot of them have children now. To see them become real adults … it was a great journey.
"I trust that I’ve made friends for life, and not just for the period I was here.
"I hope the players enjoyed the time."
Ackermann will leave for Gloucester on Wednesday.
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