Johannesburg - Emirates Lions coach Johan Ackermann may have conquered so much with his team throughout the 2016 season but as the team embark on their first playoff in Vodacom Super Rugby, one fear still nags at him – the fear of expectation.
It would be an understatement to say that Ackermann and his coaching team have taken this team far in the past few years but the uncertainty of the playoff rounds, and the weight of expectation across the country from both Lions fans and those who admire the style of play the Lions have employed is a big weight to bear.
So much so that Lions supporters are understandably very bullish at the moment, and struggle to take any sort of criticism of the team in their stride. The hope has changed into expectation and with that the Lions now know they are no longer just any other team in the competition. There is a real expectation they need to win every game they now play.
And for a coach who has walked such a long road with a team, this is the one part of the equation that invokes a bit of fear – the fear of not living up to the expectation of the fans.
Ackermann has been very open and honest on this, but admitted to Supersport.com that this remains his fear heading into the playoffs.
“I understand where people are coming from. If you think of the years that we won very little, and the supporters took a lot of shots at the time. I believe it must be nice for them to see the team winning again,” Ackermann explained.
“There is such a big expectation at the moment that you can’t fail because if you do, then everyone is disappointed. If you look at how the team has grown - in 2014 we were 12th, last year 8th and now in the playoffs, we won seven games, then nine and now 10.
“Hopefully people will see the growth in the team and be happy with that because the disappointment will be so great if we don’t bring back a trophy, because everyone has us on a pedestal and I’m not mad about that.”
As the coach rightly points out, for all the hype around the side they haven’t won anything yet. And he will only be satisfied when the Super Rugby trophy sits in the new glass entrance cage built above the offices at their stadium in a few weeks time. Ackermann points out that whatever happens, there has been spectacular growth in the side, and that should be celebrated whatever the results.
“My feeling is that we haven’t won anything yet, and it is so difficult. Playoffs can be won by any team on the field and if you lose then people are upset. But if you stand on the outside and you look at the positives and the growth of the team, we have to be positive.
“We need to temper our expectations, they shouldn’t put us on a throne just yet.
“I’m obviously happy if the fans are excited, because our only goal back in 2014 was to make our fans proud of the team again and to bring the passion into the jersey again.
“If they are going to compare us in those terms then I’m happy but if they are going to evaluate us on trophies, then we are on dangerous ground, because people are people and on the day things can go wrong.”
The Lions coach may have been rewarded with the SA A job earlier this year and there were numerous calls for him to take over the Springbok coaching role. But no stranger to the Green and Gold during his playing days, Ackermann has seen the stress that being the national coach brings, he has seen both the positives and negatives and while it may be a challenge he looks forward to in a few years’ time, it isn’t on his mind at the current juncture.
“The pressure at Super Rugby level and just to coach the Lions hoping you don’t become a punching back was intense, so I don’t want to think what it must be like to be a Springbok coach who has lost a few test matches,” Ackermann said honestly.
“You open your whole family for a difficult time, but the opposite is if it goes well then it is great. It will always be a privilege but I don’t believe in coincidence. If a door must open for me then it will open. At this stage I’m very happy at the Lions, I have never been asked or phoned.
“That is a position where you need to be at peace with your decision, and you need to be sure because the pressure will be intense from all sides. The only way to stop the pressure is to win. It is something you need to discuss with your family and I’ve never got to that point. But it isn’t just my decision.”
Ackermann attended the superb Springbok comeback at Ellis Park, sitting in the stands and realised once again how passionate supporters are about the national team. It left an indelible impression on him.
“South Africans want the Springboks to win and have unbelievable pride. I was at the Ireland test and people around me were so emotional,” he remembers.
“The principle in sport that someone has to lose doesn’t count there, if you pull that jersey over your head, you are expected to win.
“You walk with the expectations of a nation on your shoulders and there isn’t one coach who doesn’t go out there to win, but the reality is that things aren’t always going to go your way and that is where the pressure comes.
“One day if it comes my way I will consider it but for now there is enough pressure in Super Rugby.”
Ackermann knows it has been a great ride until now, but the pressure will only get more intense. That is why he is grateful for all the support he has received.
“We have some unbelievable supporters and I’m always grateful to them for their support and want to thank them. But more than that, my family has backed me in everything I do, and that is very important to me. They are my rock and they deserve all my thanks as well.”
Whatever happens this weekend Ackermann knows the keyword is once again patience. Patience that was required to build the Lions into the force they currently are, and patience going forward.
The passion and commitment is certainly there. Now patience to recognise when the timing is right is crucial both this weekend and in terms of future ambitions.
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