Ackermann: Lions bank on 'experience' factor
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Golden Lions coach Johan Ackermann is banking on his team's play-off experience when the defending Currie Cup champions travel to Bloemfontein on Saturday.
The Lions will face the tournament's runaway leaders, the unbeaten Free State Cheetahs, in the semifinal.
Ackermann's men have had a wealth of experience in dealing with the pressure of knock-out games, especially in the last three seasons.
The Lions went all the way to the Currie Cup Final in 2014, where they were defeated 19-16 by Western Province at Newlands.
In 2015 the Lions went one better from their previous Currie Cup campaign, as they went unbeaten throughout the entire round robin phase (eight matches) , before being crowned South Africa's best provincial team with a 32-24 victory over Western Province in the Final in Johannesburg.
The Lions were able to take their Currie Cup form into this year's Super Rugby season, which saw them knock over the likes of the Crusaders and the Highlanders in the quarterfinals and semifinals - before they came unstuck with a 3-20 loss against the Hurricanes in the Super Rugby Final in a wet Wellington.
The Lions have seven players in Saturday's starting team who featured in the 2015 Currie Cup Final.
The experience factor is what Ackermann hopes will shine through for the Lions.
"There are players, those who started in 2014 in the Currie Cup Final, then last year's Currie Cup," Ackermann said of a group that include Andries Coetzee, Rohan Janse van Rensburg, Anthony Volmink, Ross Cronje, Albertus Smith, Jacques van Rooyen and Julian Redelinghuys - players who also featured in this year's Super Rugby Final.
"Hopefully those guys will tap into that experience to ease the nerves a bit," Ackermann told reporters in Johannesburg.
The Lions have been in knoc-kout mode for some time now.
"They were required to beat the Sharks, in their final game of this year's Currie Cup round robin phase, in order to secure themselves a place in the semi-finals.
The Lions managed to absorb all the pressure which was thrown at them by the Sharks in the first half of their encounter a fortnight ago.
They were trailing 0-10 at half-time and 0-13 early in the second half, before outscoring the Sharks by three tries to none after the break - en route to a 28-16 victory in Johannesburg.
"I think the good thing for us was the build-up to these play-offs," Ackermann said in reference that his team was in a must-win situation.
"Although we are playing away [in Bloemfontein], the guys have had their backs against the wall. [We beat the] Kings [71-7 in Port Elizabeth] and then it was 'backs against the wall' against the Sharks, so they have had a play-off mentality already.
"Hopefully that will stand us in good stead," the coach added.
The Lions welcome back a few Springboks - tighthead prop Julian Redelinghuys and scrumhalf Francois de Klerk - for this weekend's encounter with the Cheetahs.
Both players are making their return from Springbok duty, with Redelinghuys being included in the starting team, while De Klerk has been selected to make an impact off the bench.
When questioned about the inclusion of the returning Springboks in the Lions starting team, Ackermann explained that both players bring plenty of leadership skills to the squad.
"They bring experience, play-off experience, and they've just experienced rugby at the highest level," he said, adding: "In our view, that's very positive."
The last time the Cheetahs and the Lions played each other, in a Round Seven match in Bloemfontein in September, the Cheetahs outscored the Lions by five tries to two - en route to a hard-fought 37-29 victory.
By Josh Isaacson