Lions supporters will be saddened by Johan Ackermann’s move north to English club Gloucester, but for Springbok supporters it could be the best news we have had on the national front for a very long time.
We have all marvelled at how Ackers took the nondescripts at the Lions from a relegated Super Rugby team into a “brotherhood” – a term used by the players themselves – that contested last year’s final and could possibly go one further this season on the evidence of how they destroyed the Stormers at Newlands last week.
Take a good look into rugby’s crystal ball and you might just see a Springbok captain holding aloft the Webb Ellis Cup at Ellis Park. In the background a beaming Johan Ackermann, the victorious coach.
It is not that impossible for the stars to fall in line in 2023 for South Africa as they did in 1995. The Republic is due a turn to host the Rugby World Cup. Ireland are also front-runners but South Africa have the infrastructure and, as a heavyweight rugby nation, have waited patiently for a second shot at the World Cup.
With respect to Allister Coetzee, I can’t see him turning his horror first year in charge of the Boks (four wins in 12 Tests) into World Cup glory in Japan in 2019 and, while he is contractually bound to SA Rugby until then, it would be a miracle if he turns things around, wins the world Cup and is retained as coach.
If we get a new Springbok coach at the end of 2019, it will surely be someone like Ackermann, who by that stage will be even better than he is now for the years he is going to spend in the northern hemisphere, learning from other respected coaches and indeed players.
There is virtually nothing that Ackermann can still learn about the South African game. As a player, he was at one time the oldest player to play Super Rugby and also the oldest active Springbok (37), though a 38-year-old Victor Matfield broke both those records in 2015.
After a stint playing club rugby in Cape Town, Ackermann cut his teeth coaching the forwards under former All Blacks coach John Mitchell at the Lions and has had a meteoric rise at Ellis Park ever since.
When news first broke that Ackermann had been offered the Gloucester job, he said: “It is a tough decision for me to make. I drive to work and this is my city, my country, my culture, my language. I am very comfortable here…”
But in choosing to break out of his comfort zone, Ackermann is acknowledging that he is not the finished product. He later said: “Like a player aims to play at the highest level, so does a coach, and maybe this is what I have got to do (go north) to one day coach an international team.”
Young Sharks prop Thomas du Toit summed it up neatly in a recent interview when speaking about his three-month loan to Munster in the South African off season. “It made me realise that we as South Africans do not know everything and they don’t know everything over there, so a cross-pollination of ideas is beneficial for everybody.”
Ackers is the personification of humility. He will be open to fresh ideas and soak up technical detail in his time in England. We have seen how immensely respected he is by his players. They play for him and I suspect that the Lions will play their guts out to win the Super Rugby title this year for their coach.
It was evident against the Stormers. I have never seen Eben Etzebeth and Pieter-Steph du Toit manhandled as they were Newlands. And the image of the game I will never forget was young Ruan Ackermann, locking brows with Etzebeth (who had him by the scruff of the neck) and defiantly eye-balling the Springbok lock. A chip off the old block…
Imagine a wiser Johan Ackermann building a winning Springbok team from 2020 to 2023, capped off by South Africa hoisting the Webb Ellis Cup at Ellis Park. It’s a dream that has a very good chance of becoming reality.