It wasn’t that long ago that the Lions were relegated from Super Rugby, to make way for the Southern Kings, in 2013, and were seemingly cash-strapped and losing players by the dozen. Those were tough times.
And to make matters worse, they were hardly spoken about when it came to talk of challenging for a Super Rugby play-off spot, let alone the Currie Cup.
Sure, they won the domestic title in 2011, under the guidance of John Mitchell, but then things went horribly pear-shaped before Ackermann pulled the side together, instilled a brotherhood mentality and backed a bunch of largely discarded and unwanted players, many of them youngsters who just wanted to play some rugby.
And now, having played in the Currie Cup final in back-to-back years – 2014 and 2015 – and won it last season and enjoyed their best ever run in Super Rugby last time out, the Lions are all of a sudden being talked about as potential play-off contenders.
In fact, should the Lions not make the final rounds of the competition, now in a new format, it would be viewed as something of a below-par showing.
That’s how quickly things have changed in Joburg.
What Ackermann has achieved in the last three years is quite remarkable.
Not only have the Lions played a sparkling brand of rugby, they’ve become tough to get the better of and for the first time in many, many years there is what every coach at Super Rugby level cherishes: depth.
And with that comes the improved chances of the team performing better and going the distance because should key players pick up injuries – which they will – there will always be someone else to step in and fill his place.
There may not be many Springboks in the Lions’ ranks – but that, too, is likely to change this year with a new Bok boss being appointed and several seasoned players having moved on – but there is genuine quality across the squad and Ackermann is in for some tough selection decisions in the coming weeks.
But, as he’s stated, he’d much rather be in this position than not have players to pick from and, anyway, he’s set to rotate his players throughout the campaign, as he’s done in the past.
It means players stay fresh over the course of what has become a marathon competition while at the same time preparing every squad member to be on top of his game.
Yesterday in Polokwane, for the warm-up match against the Bulls, Ackermann selected what appeared to be his strongest starting XV, but then the side he selects for this weekend’s match against the Jaguares – the Lions’ last before setting off to Japan and their match with the Sunwolves – will also have a “strongest XV” look about it.
The men who didn’t start yesterday included Jaco van der Walt, Anthony Volmink, Harold Vorster, Howard Mnisi, Marnitz Boshoff, Stokkies Hanekom, Faf de Klerk, Derick Minnie, Ruan Lerm, Martin Muller, Lourens Erasmus, Ruan Dreyer, Corné Fourie, Armand van der Merwe and Malcolm Marx.
And, let’s not forget that Kwagga Smith, so devastating in the Currie Cup in the last two years, won’t play Super Rugby because of his Sevens commitments.
One has to wonder whether Ackermann even knows what his strongest side is or whether he thinks about it at all.
He’s simply happy to pick the players he believes will deliver the goods on a specific weekend and if it works for him then there’s no reason to change it. But that does not mean he doesn’t have a selection dilemma ahead of him.
In the front row, Julian Redelinghuys, Ruan Dreyer, Jacques van Rooyen and Corné Fourie are challenging for two starting spots, but let’s not discount young gun Dylan Smith entering the fray this year, while at hookers Robbie Coetzee, Malcolm Marx and Armand van der Merwe are vying for one spot.
Among the locks, Franco Mostert is likely to be the mainstay, and surely a Bok call-up isn’t far off, while Lourens Erasmus, Andries Ferreira and Martin Muller are competing for the other second-row role.
At loose forward, Warren Whiteley, Jaco Kriel and Warwick Tecklenburg are just about certainties to start, especially after their heroics last season and they, too, could be in line for higher honours this year, but Ackermann has good back-up in Ruan Lerm, Steph de Wit, Fabian Booysen and his son, Ruan, to fall back on should any injuries strike down the first-choice men.
Then we have Faf de Klerk, who took charge of the No9 jersey last year, up against Ross Cronjé for the scrumhalf role; the latter outstanding for the Lions in the Currie Cup winning run. Expect both to play a lot of rugby and switching between the starting role and the bench throughout the competition.
Elton Jantjies is surely the first choice No10, but Marnitz Boshoff will be breathing down his neck and, whoever starts, the Lions will be in good hands.
Outside them, Ackermann has a plethora of centres to pick from: Rohan Janse van Rensburg, Harold Vorster, Howard Mnisi, Lionel Mapoe, Stokkies Hanekom, and even some of the men from the junior ranks got a taste of Currie Cup rugby last year.
On the wings Ruan Combrinck, fit again after missing the Currie Cup, will lock up the right wing berth, while Courtnall Skosan should be installed on the left, but Anthony Volmink will be pushing hard for a starting role as will Sampie Mastriet when he returns from injury.
Andries Coetzee will be the first-choice fullback and even if he’s out of form or injured Ackermann can always rely on Boshoff or Combrinck to fill in at No15.
It’s a quality Lions squad, which should be hitting their full potential this season, so expect big things from Ackermann’s team.
And that’s the key word – team.
There are a number of very promising individuals, many of whom have already shown they are ready to play a lot of Test rugby, doing the rounds in Joburg, but what makes Ackermann’s side tick is not individuals but the team effort.
The Lions face the Jaguares at Ellis Park on Saturday before departing for Tokyo next Tuesday.
Their first match of the Super Rugby competition is against the Sunwolves at 6am on Saturday, February 27.
– THE SUNDAY INDEPENDENT
Original source: Lions’ strength in depth the key