Lions supporters will be saddened by Johan Ackermann’s move north from the Lions to English club Gloucester but for Springbok supporters it could be the best news we have had on the national front for a very long time.
We have all marveled at how Ackers took the nondescripts at the Lions when they were a non Super Rugby team and turned them into a “brotherhood” – a term the players themselves use to describe themselves – that contested the Super Rugby final last year and could possibly go one further this season on the evidence of how they destroyed the Stormers at Newlands last week.
Take a good look into rugby’s crystal ball and you might just see a Springbok captain holding aloft the Webb Ellis Cup at Ellis Park. In the background a beaming Johan Ackermann, the victorious coach.
It is not that impossible for the stars to fall in line in 2023 for South Africa as they did in 1995. In fact it is quite possible indeed. The Republic is well due a chance to host the tournament once more. Ireland are the other front-runners but South Africa have the infrastructure in term of Stadiums and as a heavyweight rugby nation have waited patiently for a second shot at the World Cup.
With respect to Allister Coetzee, I can’t see him turning his horror first year in charge of the Boks (four wins in 12 Tests) into World Cup glory in Japan in 2019 and while he is contractually bound to Saru until then, it would be a miracle if he turns things dramatically around, wins the world Cup and is retained as coach.
If we get a new Springbok coach at the end of 2019, it will surely be an Ackermann, who by that stage will be even better than he is now for the years he is going to spend in the Northern Hemisphere, learning from other respected coaches and indeed players.
There is virtually nothing that Ackermann can still learn about the South African game. As a player he was the oldest player to play Super Rugby at 37 years old (eclipsed in 2015 by Victor Matfield) and was also the oldest Springbok (37), Victor Matfield also breaking that record when he played for the Boks in 2015 at age 38.
He broke into coaching as the forwards coach for former All Blacks coach John Mitchell at the Lions and has had a meteoric rise at Ellis Park ever since.
When the speculation first broke that Ackermann had been offered the Gloucester job, he said: “It is a tough decision for me to make. I drive to work and this is my city, my country, my culture, my language. I am very comfortable here …”
But in choosing to break out of his comfort zone, Ackermann is acknowledging that he is not the finished product. He later said: “Like a player aims to play at the highest level, so does a coach, and maybe this is what I have got to do (go North) to one day coach an international team.”
Young Sharks prop Thomas du Toit summed it up neatly in a recent interview when speaking about his three-month loan to Munster in the South African off season. “It made me realise that we as South Africans do not know everything and they don’t know everything over there, so a cross pollination of ideas is beneficial for everybody.”
Ackers is the personification of humility. He will be open to fresh ideas and soak up technical detail in his time in England. We have seen how immensely respected he is by his players. They play for him and I suspect that the Lions will play their guts out to win the Super Rugby title this year for the ‘Meneer”.
It was evident against the Stormers. I have never seen Eben Etzebeth and Pieter-Steph du Toit manhandled as they were Newlands. And the image of the game I will never forget was young Ruan Ackermann, all 21 years of him, leaning his face into that of Etzebeth (who had him by the scruff of the neck) and defiantly eye-balling the Springbok lock. A chip of the old block or what…
So there we have it. A wiser Johan Ackermann to build a winning Springbok team from 2020 to 2023 and the Webb Ellis Cup won for South Africa at Ellis Park that year. That is a dream that has a very good chance of becoming reality.
by Mike Greenaway
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