Van der Walt thrust into Cup frontline
INTERVIEW: Lions coach Johan Ackermann wants his young players to 'step up' and show they belong on the big stage.
Ackermann, speaking to the media ahead of the Currie Cup crunch match against Western Province at Ellis Park on Friday, said he was expecting an "inspired performance" from some of the younger members of the defending champions' squad in this must-win game.
The Lions, without the services of nine Springboks and Japan-based Warwick Tecklenburg, are in fifth place (with 12 points after four matches) in the standings - the same as the sixth-placed WP.
The loser of this encounter - a repeat of last year's Final - will be in real danger of missing out on a play-off spot this year.
Ackermann believes it is now the opportunity of the young cubs to make their mark.
"These are players that came through our junior ranks," Ackermann said, adding: "They played in the Currie Cup qualifiers and know what our expectations are.
"The reality is that we must gel as quickly as possible, especially from now on, because there are no more easy games and there is definitely not a lot of room for slipping up."
Ackermann listed 22-year-old flyhalf Jaco van der Walt at the top of the list of players who can show their class in a high-pressure game.
"It's a great test for a guy like Jaco van der Walt," he said of the young star, who featured more at fullback than flyhalf this year.
"[He is] playing in a crunch game at No.10 and must show us that he can step up when [Springbok] Elton Jantjies is not available.
"You can go through the whole team. A lot of these guys we can learn by playing under these circumstances.
"We value the Currie Cup as a competition, not just for its history, but also for growing new talent and showing what you've got for the future. There is no guarantee that next year your Springboks will give the same performances and then these guys must step in.
"We won't go get another 20 guys from somewhere to fill those shoes. These players must fill those positions, so now they must show us what they can do."
Ackermann again reiterated his statement from last week that his team is paying the price for their successful Super Rugby season.
Having progressed all the way to the Super Rugby Final - the same weekend that the Currie Cup kicked off - there was no time to recuperate.
The Lions usually spend four to five weeks together, working on their game plan and finding their combinations.
The Lions lost their second game of this year's Currie Cup competition when they were beaten 31-17 by the Bulls in Pretoria last Friday - after also losing to Griquas earlier in the season.
"The reality is four weeks or five weeks with a team [in pre-season] creates unity, cohesion and a fluency in your game.
"We didn't have that this year and now suddenly you've got players coming in and not only playing Currie Cup for the first time but also new combinations.
"I still believe that is a big reason why we are not clicking yet.
"I feel that we would have seen it even with the Super Rugby side.
"Last year, between Super Rugby and Currie Cup, we had almost five weeks together," Ackermann added.
By Josh Isaacson