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The monochrome man who made rugby magic

  • By ClintonV
  • July 24, 2017
  • Comments Off on The monochrome man who made rugby magic

One of the happy by-products of the Lions’ success in recent years is that the precinct around Ellis Park, for so long a grimy part of Joburg, has been spruced up.

Trees have been planted, pavements swept and weeds ripped out. Even the vagrants have moved on.

All that remains to be done is for a statue to be built in honour of Johan Ackermann, their departing coach and the man who relentlessly pursued his vision of rugby perfection.

This may seem like overstating his influence, but when he arrived, the Lions were a mess. John Mitchell had been shown the door and they had endured a season in the Super Rugby wilderness.

It’s not just that Ackermann has excelled as coach of the Lions. He’s wrought massive change in the way the team plays and the philosophy that drives them. Better still, he did it with a team long on heart but short on true class.

He took players like Warren Whiteley, who had few ambitions beyond provincial rugby, and Ross Cronje, a blue-collar player, and made them outstanding. Whiteley even became Springbok captain. Ackermann imbued them with purpose and motivation and their response was to go to the wall in his name.

He did this with many of his players, some of whom had been overlooked elsewhere, like Rohan Janse van Rensburg with the Bulls or Ruan Combrinck with Western Province. He recognised their skill and he pressed the buttons that needed pressing.

IIt was . . . a plan grounded in the need to drag the team away from the prevailing dogma about how SA sides play

This was all part of a bigger plan, a plan grounded in the need to drag the team away from the prevailing dogma about how South African sides play. It was on a flight back from New Zealand some years ago, bewailing another run of bad results, that he and former Sharks man Swys de Bruin decided a change of tack was needed.

They quickly got to work, embracing a free-wheeling style of running and passing that is beyond compare locally. Others try and emulate it, but the truth is that it was a slow process that was years in the making. Getting buy-in from the players was vital, but Ackerman was convinced they’d become believers if they saw the results.

It wasn’t enough that they simply played attractive rugby. Any team can throw the ball around. It had to be winning rugby too.

The irony is that Ackermann himself was the stereotypical SA player: big, strong, gruff and assured, as far removed from eye-catching as you could get. Even now, it’s hard to credit his coaching style with his manner, which continues to be subdued and low-key.

So much for appearances. Indeed, he’s wearing a beard that he’s cultivated since March. The players put him up to it, insisting he not cut it until they’re next beaten.

The pity is that he’ll shortly be signing off to take up a contract in the UK with Gloucester. It’s an unfancied club that has struggled in the past 10 years. But it’s the sort of challenge the South African will relish.

Although he’s routinely been mentioned in dispatches about the Springbok coaching job, Ackermann himself has wavered. He’s still cutting his teeth as a coach. What would be ideal, though, is for him to pick up a few years’ experience in England, where the demands are much different, and add another layer to his coaching credentials.

Surrounded by the influence of the four home unions, he’ll return a better, more rounded coach and be in a prime position to make a run for a senior post.

Ackermann’s influence locally has been significant. The Stormers have moved away from their defensive game plan, expanding their horizons with a faster, more fluid game. The Sharks, too, are embellishing their attack without surrendering their fundamentals.

Ironically, it is probably the Kings who are the closest in style and ambition to the Lions, a style rooted in conditioning and confidence.

When Ackermann takes his final walk down the Ellis Park tunnel, we should celebrate him as an innovator and pioneer. He was the one brave enough to believe in a new way and make it work.

South African rugby is much the richer for it. – © Sunday Tribune




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