Lions have 'steep hill' to climb
INTERVIEW: Golden Lions Johan Ackermann believes his team is entering a crucial period in their Currie Cup campaign. Jan de Koning reports.
Speaking to rugby365 ahead of their trip to Pretoria on Friday, Ackermann said they simply can't afford any more slip-ups - like their loss to Griquas a fortnight go.
While some pundits and the bookies are ready to install the defending champion Lions as favourites against their trans-Jukskei rivals, the Blue Bulls, Ackermann feels his team has not done enough to warrant that tag.
The Bulls - in fifth place, one point and one position behind the Lions on the table - have lost two of their four matches. They beat and under-performing Western Province and the hapless Eastern Province Kings, but lost to the Free State Cheetahs and Sharks.
The Lions, in contrast, have won two of their three matches - beating the Pumas and Boland, but lost to Griquas.
The Lions' remaining matches are against the Bulls (away), Western Province (home), Free State Cheetahs (away), EP Kings (home) and Sharks (away).
And that is why Ackermann feels his team has the tougher run-in to the play-offs. The Bulls, after Friday's outing, face Boland, Griquas and the Pumas.
The Lions mentor dismissed the suggestion that the Bulls are struggling,
"They were a bit unlucky against the Sharks," he said of the Bulls' 19-26 loss in Durban last Saturday, adding: "There were some questions marks over one or two of those [Sharks] tries."
It is the two teams' contrasting schedules that is another cause for concern.
"They [the Bulls] have already played the Western Province, Cheetahs and Sharks.
"We are now going into that phases where we face the tougher teams," Ackermann told rugby365, adding:" "There is a tough road ahead for us."
He feels the Bulls remain a quality team.
"Most of their forwards have played Super Rugby. Their backline is the same, most played Super Rugby this year.
"On the day they can beat any team in this competition.
"The results may not have gone their way, but I don't feel they are in such bad shape.
"The biggest mistake you can make is to look at results.
"You have to turn up for every match ."
Ackermann also feels the defending Currie Cup champions are not playing quality rugby yet and their standards are not at an acceptable level.
"Unlike last year, we did not have a [pre-season] build-up of more than a month.
"We also lost  players since the Super Rugby Final."
He said their focus won't be exclusively on the win.
"Our focus will be on obtaining the standards we have set for ourselves. We have been erratic in the first three matches, so we are striving for a better standard."
With new combinations - as a result of the nine players being with the Springboks and another in Japan - the Lions need to make some adjustments.
"Time was not on our side this year to reset [after Super Rugby].
"We have to work on all aspects of our game. Our attack is not at a level it should be, while our defence can also improve.
"You always work on your set pieces.
"To reach our goals and make the play-offs, it will require a big effort.
"There are no easy games and this is an abbreviated Currie Cup [competition].
"For me, it is important that we improve every week.
"We are in the process of fixing the errors that come up every week."
By Jan de Koning