Johannesburg - Lions coach Johan Ackermann grabbed the underdogs tag for this weekend’s Super Rugby semi-final showdown with the Hurricanes, saying there was less pressure on his side to perform this weekend than there was ahead of their quarter-final clash with the Sharks last week.
According to the SuperSport website, the defending champion Hurricanes will arrive at Ellis Park on Saturday knowing they have had the upper hand last year in the only two meetings between the two sides, and are on a high after wins against the Crusaders and Brumbies en route to this match.
Ackermann predictably selected the same team that did battle in the quarterfinals, giving a vote of confidence to the players who under-performed against the Sharks, but was confident the players knew what to expect this week when they get onto the field.
But there was almost a sense of relief last week when the Lions managed to escape defeat at the hands of the Sharks, and Ackermann admits the pressure was massive going into that game.
“Well I can only speak on my own behalf. I trust the players will enjoy the week building up to the game, but for myself there is less pressure than there was last week, purely because it is now an 80 minute game where we can only control the day when it happens. Last week there was a lot of expectation, and we didn’t live up to that, but the reality is that all the pressure was on us, so we can just go out and enjoy the day and give our best shot. If we have done everything we could and give a great effort out there, then the result will look after itself,” he said.
Ackermann added that the selection decision was based on where they saw the Hurricanes game going, and what would be expected from them under pressure in the 80 minutes.
“Obviously we are happy that we could have had that continuity, and we debated a few players. There was obviously some decision about where the game will go and what we need, but at the end of the day, we felt it is just reward for the guys who went through these last few games as combinations and as a unit.
“They are defending champions, had a great win against the Crusaders, beat the Brumbies away from home, so the quality they come out with, will try and put a lot of pressure on us. But if you look at the tries scored with both sides, I think both sides will play an exciting game. They’ve got a lot of quality players at the back that I think they will utilise, but it is for us to look at our game, and keep up with the intensity.”
Still, he was the first to admit that the win over the Sharks was patchy and not at all at the standard they will need to be this weekend if they want to book a place in the final.
“If you look at the players’ response last week, speaking to them afterwards, I think they realise the game we played on the weekend won’t be good enough,” he said.
“So it is up to the team, not only the starting line-up but the bench to make sure that come Saturday they are at their best. We tried to stick to the same routine, we had a good Tuesday, we had a very good training today and hopefully the excitement of playing in a semifinal doesn’t happen often, every name that you see there will lift their game. They need to, they need to if we are to win against one of the best sides, if not the best side in the competition.”
Ackermann said the two victories last year made the Hurricanes firm favourites for the semi, especially with the Barrett brothers in such fine form at the moment, but believes if his side hit their straps, the result will take care of itself.
“It makes them favourites again, definitely. Like I said, a lot of things changed since those games, we lost players and they lost players so to me the whole slate is 0-0. But the reality is that they are a quality side and they proved it last year. The challenge is really up for us, to be able to contest against them.
“Again its about our performance, we look at ourselves, if we look at ourselves, we train well and we play well on Saturday, the system will look after that. The reality is that they are two of the best players in the world, they are quality players. Last year Barrett in the final basically won the game by himself, through his kicking and the try he scored from a turnover lineout. We won the lineout, he scored the try. But anyway, they are quality, they have shown that but again the biggest mistake we can make is to focus on individuals. If we perform as a team, the result is in our hands and we can’t focus on how to contain one or two guys, there are too many quality players starting from one to 23.”
The 2017 team has scored 84 tries thus far, breaking the 2016 record of 81 team tries, with play-offs remaining. Their opposition for the semi, the Hurricanes (93) have scored more tries in 2017.
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