Few would have given the Lions a chance after they lost their first three matches in South Africa before going on tour, but three wins in Australasia and another, against the Bulls at Ellis Park on Saturday, has seen Johan Ackermann’s team move into a position where they can seriously start thinking of finishing in the top six, and playing in the knockout games.
The Lions are 10th in the standings, with 17 points, but only three points separate them and the fifth-placed Highlanders. In the South African conference, they trail the leaders, the Bulls (19), by only two points, with the Sharks and Stormers on 19 and 17 points respectively. The top-placed conference team after the league stages will automatically qualify for a home knock-out game.
Ackermann though says it’s far too soon to be contemplating the play-offs. “There’s too much rugby to be played to even think about that,” he said after his team’s nailbiting 22-18 win against the Bulls.
“We’ve achieved nothing yet. We’ve got to keep grinding out results, week after week, and if you get ahead of yourself now then you’re on the wrong path.”
The Lions edged their northern neighbours thanks to an 80th minute try by replacement hooker Akker van der Merwe, which came just seconds after the Bulls had gone into a 18-15 lead after a Jacques-Louis Potgieter penalty.
“The last few weeks haven’t been good for our nerves,” said Ackermann, whose team edged past the Blues, Rebels and Reds.
“The composure that was shown there at the end was great. The players trusted each other and credit to them for showing so much fight. I thought the attitude was great after the Bulls had kicked that penalty.”
Following Potgieter’s three-pointer, the Lions ran back to halfway, kicked off, piled the pressure on the Bulls and won the turn-over. The Bulls strayed off-side and before captain Warren Whiteley could make a tough call - to kick at goal and get a draw or possibly kick to touch to try score a try - replacement No9 Faf de Klerk took a quick tap and fed Van der Merwe who burst through three defenders to score the winning try.
“The mindset of the players was superb. They never hung their heads or walked back to restart the game. They took the risk to go for it and it paid off. Their attitude was great and I’m proud of them,” said Ackermann.
Earlier this season the Lions were in the same position as on Saturday, but on that occasion the quick-tap penalty didn’t result in a try and the Stormers won another close game. The Lions were criticised then for not kicking at goal. “It didn’t work for us then, but tonight it went our way,” said Whiteley. “It’s the character of this side ... it’s the will of this team. It’s what makes the game so special, to finish like that was great.”
The Lions now go into their ninth week without a bye and facing them this weekend will be a Sharks side that appears to be falling to pieces, but desperate to right the wrongs of last Saturday. “Hopefully we’ve got another 80 minutes in us before our bye,” said Ackermann.
Added Whiteley: “It’s really nice knowing we’ve got a bye after this week. We can empty the tank and give it 120percent against the Sharks. The trick is to not relax and think we’re already there. We need to stay focused and give it everything this week.”
Original source: Lions in play-off contention