Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Strapping young Ruan Ackermann could be the major beneficiary of warhorse Warwick Tecklenburg’s slightly unexpected decision to retire ahead of the Lions’ 2017 Super Rugby campaign.
One consolation for supporters of the Johannesburg franchise, spirited runners-up in last year’s tournament, is that credible alternative options will not be in notably short supply for the looming new campaign.
If anything, there ought to be healthy, riveting competition between the 21-year-old Ackermann, son of head coach Johan, and another robust young loose forward, Cyle Brink, for the No 7 jersey vacated by Tecklenburg, who revealed last week that he was quitting all rugby to go farming.
What the Lions lose with Tecklenburg’s exit from the fold, after being a tireless servant at Ellis Park since 2013, is a virtually second-to-none work-rate and general willingness to do much of the unglamorous, unheralded business at relatively close quarters.
It explains why Tecklenburg was often a prominent figure on statistics lists in the competition highlighting individual tackle counts, for example.
Either of Ackermann or Brink, both blessed with dynamic leg-strength and the ability to spectacularly “bounce” front-on defenders, may prove slightly more visible in open exchanges if entrusted with the No 7 shirt.
Brink, 23 and born in the “Big Smoke”, showed in promising cameos last year – often as a substitute – that he also has some stepping skills to go with his raw strength and go-forward instincts, whereas with Ackermann you get a slightly more direct individual in the traditional blindside flank mould.
Just based on the Lions’ pecking order in 2016, Ackermann is arguably the next cab off the rank to step into Tecklenburg’s role – he was the loose forward replacement for the 2016 final in Wellington, where the Lions were eventually well beaten 20-3 by hosts the Hurricanes.
In certain respects, he might even balance the loose trio just a little better, although that is not to say that the retiring player’s range of attributes won’t be missed.
The rugged nature of Ackermann’s play may just help free up the two remaining members of the once-staple Lions loosie alliance -- captain Warren Whiteley at No 8 and open-side tearaway Jaco Kriel -- to be that bit more roaming, and involved in hand-to-hand attacking moves.
With his 1.93m frame and weight of some 110kg, Ackermann is a bit like a Danie Rossouw or Rynhardt Elstadt – or go back much, much further to Theuns Stofberg if you like – for being like an “extra lock” at blindside flank.
On that subject, he has already shown himself capable of deputising in the second row anyway, and he also wore the No 8 jersey when Whiteley was ruled out of the 2016 semi-final against the Highlanders in Johannesburg with a calf problem.
He needs a bit more work on his hand skills and general awareness of situations if he is to challenge more regularly as an eighthman, and in many ways No 7 seems an appealing fit for him, unless the explosive former SA U20 player Brink becomes a serious obstacle – as might well happen.
In a further, gratifying move that boosts their loose forward stocks in 2017, SA Sevens star Kwagga Smith is contractually bound to return to fifteens play after the next round of the World Rugby Sevens Series in Sydney this weekend; he will add considerably to their carrying and ball-pinching departments.
It is doubtful whether a loose trio comprising Whiteley, Kriel and Smith would provide the ideal ingredients – it would be missing at least one big, truly grunt-conscious element – but at least the general Lions cupboard in loose forwards looks healthy enough as they contemplate Tecklenburg’s switch to a tractor and dungarees …
*The Lions open their 2017 campaign away to domestic rivals the Cheetahs on February 25.
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing