Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – The emergence of Johan
Ackermann as one of the most formidable coaches in Vodacom Super Rugby has been
a major hallmark of the southern hemisphere season so far.
His Lions charges, not among the bookies’
front-runners at the outset of 2016, enter the June recess quite favourably positioned
to top the entire pile by the end of ordinary season, which would tee up
attractive rights to a Johannesburg final if they can also progress successfully
through the knockout phase.
As pleasingly, new Springbok coach Allister
Coetzee has not stood in the way of Ackermann’s elevation to head coach of the
SA ‘A’ side.
More blinkered, insecure men might have
objected to such a “foot in the door” for another mastermind at a time when the
senior incumbent is obviously working feverishly to put his own, start-out
stamp on national playing style and strategy.
There is clearly mutual respect and it
could well have positive spinoffs for both parties.
They do say, after all, that the worst
leaders in any sphere of life are those who surround themselves only by “yes
men” – often a sign of some paranoia -- and foolishly ignore people capable of
pushing them beyond their own templates and comfort zones, to the greater good.
Kudos to the vastly seasoned Coetzee, whose
own first-class coaching CV sports comforting consistency in team results terms,
for being bigger than that.
But what is it that most forcefully
explains Ackermann’s rise to such lofty levels with a Lions squad generally
sidestepped for higher recognition by Coetzee’s Bok predecessor Heyneke Meyer
and, team-wise, not widely considered potential title material?
While their quality and pure “watchability”
of rugby has been a major breath of fresh air domestically, perhaps the really vital
ingredient the 45-year-old (he turns 46 on Friday) has placed in the Ellis Park
pot is a rare degree of squad spirit and unity.
The collective hunger seems to hugely trump
any individual egos or agendas in the Lions’ midst; there is all-embracing
buy-in and an extraordinary eagerness for all to prosper.
That is reflected in Ackermann’s player
rotations and substitutions: transitions always seem to be seamless and
effective, with no damage done to momentum or continuity, and sometimes these
are only enhanced – often by relative “no name” players from the fringes of the
broader pool whose hunger when unleashed is quite plain to see.
Sometimes you need to observe the little
things to appreciate what makes a team successful: I thought I spotted just one
when the Lions ran out to play the Blues a few weeks ago.
It was a filthy night in the Big Smoke, the
crowd was reasonably sparse and the Lions also entered that clash with some
fresh doubts swirling over their true ability – their previous outing had been
that messy home reverse by a wide margin to the Hurricanes.
Even as the rain lashed down, the Lions
substitutes on that occasion made a point of not just trudging out of the
tunnel, ahead of the starting XV, and quietly taking up their spots on the
Instead they lined up at the entrance and
gave an unusually raucous, back-slapping greeting to Warren Whiteley and
company as they took to the pitch.
It may have played a bigger role than some
will give credit for in geeing up the frontline troops, because the Lions made
a rip-roaring start that knocked the stuffing irreversibly from the Blues’
challenge in a 43-5 walloping and they have stayed a dynamic, high-tempo outfit
Ackermann’s ability to forge unsurpassable
levels of camaraderie in his charges reminds this writer of the similar skills,
in various earlier years of Super Rugby, of Alan Solomons in that regard.
The former Bok assistant coach, who now has
charge of Edinburgh, was renowned for the harmony and close bonds evident in
his sprightly 1999 Stormers side, which went all the way to a home semi-final
that year, and then again in 2013, when as director of rugby for the Kings’
baptism in the competition, they punched courageously above their weight much
of the time.
During his era at the helm at Newlands, he
used to insist that the overseas leg be viewed as an “adventure rather than
ordeal”, particularly because the Australasian tour presented the best
opportunity to establish genuine squad gees.
Lo and behold, his Stormers teams gained a
reputation – frequently demonstrated in the results column -- for travelling
abroad more comfortably than most compatriots.
Retired Bok captain and SuperSport pundit
Bob Skinstad, who had plenty of prior experience of Solomons-coached sides,
specifically singled out Ackermann’s team unity-building attributes during an
appearance on the ‘TMO’ programme this week.
He is well-qualified to speak on him,
considering that he captained the hefty lock at Test level.
“You’ve got to take your hat off,” Skinstad
enthused of his 2016 successes thus far. “Ackies is someone who is well-known
as a guy who cared about the players around him.
“Yes, he was a big, strong enforcer as a
player but he had a soft side to him as well.
“(Laughing) You can just see it, from the
way his assistant Swys (de Bruin) will give him a smooch on the head when they
score a great long-range try, to the way the players hug him afterwards (when
they have won well).
“We are often on the field as commentators
straight after matches and you can see his players are interacting … it’s like
a family environment.
“For me that’s 80 percent of any winning …
it’s about the culture of the team. It’s important to note that about these
guys (the Lions). It’s been brilliant.”
There are likely to be few objections to
our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing