Coach Johan Ackermann’s son, Ruan, will have to fill some big shoes if the Lions are going to get into the Vodacom Super Rugby final in 2017.
The core of the 2016 team that was responsible for the best season in Lions history remains intact. The exceptions are up front where Julian Redelinghuys will spend the year in a rehabilitation programme after neck surgery ended his 2016 campaign, and Warwick Tecklenburg’s retirement has left a gaping hole at No 7. And that’s where Ackermann Jr comes in.
The least heralded of the Lions back row, Tecklenburg’s contribution went largely unnoticed last year as Jaco Kriel won turnovers and Warren Whiteley used them to counter-attack.
The Lions defence rushed teams into making errors and Kriel and Whiteley featured as the Lions led the competition in turnovers won and metres run.
But that was 2016. Their rivals may have taken inordinately long to get a handle on the Lions, but now that they have, both Ackermanns are going to have to adapt, and quickly.
All but one of the Kiwi teams fell into the trap of speeding up their attack to try and circumvent the Lions rush defence – in the Super Rugby final, the Hurricanes exposed the Lions’ soft underbelly.
The eventual champions opted for a direct approach in the Wellington decider that challenged the Lions pack to front up on the gainline.
Neither Kriel nor Whiteley are adept at trench warfare. The Canes made metres up the middle and, once the Lions defensive line had been compressed, they attacked with a numerical superiority to win 20-3.
Even though the Lions won’t face the Kiwi teams during their regular 15-game schedule, they can expect to be confronted with the Hurricanes’ blueprint throughout this season. And because ball security becomes less of a factor for attacking teams when the number of passes decreases, the deluge of turnovers will dry up.
A confrontational Tecklenburg would have been the cornerstone of plans to safeguard the Lions against this approach.
In 2016 he made almost as many dominant tackles (21) as Kriel and Whiteley combined (24) and, though Tecklenburg was covering from blindside, only Kriel (17) bettered his tally of 11 turnovers won. Lock Franco Mostert was Tecklenburg’s wingman and together they accounted for 271 of the Lions’ 1586 tackles (17%).
Ruan Ackermann saw half as much game time as Tecklenburg did last season, and only mustered two positive hits in 54 tackles.
Though Ackermann has been groomed as Whiteley’s eventual successor at No 8, Tecklenburg’s retirement will likely see him pressed into service at No 7 this season, and it’s vital for the Lions that he proves capable of throwing knockout punches in the tacklefight.
Lions 2017 schedule (home games in caps):
February 25, Cheetahs
March 4, WARATAHS
March 11, Jaguares
March 18, REDS
March 25, Kings
April 1, SHARKS
April 15, Stormers
April 21, JAGUARES
April 29, Force
May 6, Rebels
May 12, Brumbies
May 20, BULLS
May 28, KINGS
June Test Window
July 1, SUNWOLVES
July 15, Sharks