Johannesburg - With winning comes a price tag, and Emirates Lions coach Johan Ackermann knows his side will be targeted this season in Vodacom Super Rugby.
According to the supersport.com website, the Lions win in the Currie Cup and their surprise success in last year’s competition means they will no longer be able to use the underdog tag for this year’s tournament and teams will take a longer, harder look at them before they face off in battle.
But Ackermann believes that means just one thing for the team – they simply need to work harder this year than ever before.
The Lions have already impressed with their style of play and to coin an old phrase – play “with a smile on their faces” – when they go out on the park. Clearly a happy team, the objective is now to get them to build on that success, and this will be tougher, especially as everyone knows the brand of rugby they will employ.
“With winning there is always a price tag,” Ackermann said.
“In Super Rugby everyone always wants to beat teams like the Crusaders and the Chiefs. Everyone also wants to beat the South African team that is at the top.
“But for us, we have closed the door on last year, last year’s success will mean nothing this year. We remember that in 2011 we won the Currie Cup, and in 2012 we had a bad year in Super Rugby. So there are dangers that you want to ride on that success. I hope that the players realise that we have to work harder than ever.
“Also, we don’t have all those Springboks or names on paper, but I think the teams will respect us a little more this year, analyse us a little more and prepare better, so it will definitely be a big challenge.
“We’re not going to put pressure on ourselves to achieve big things, we will prepare properly for every game and give our all for every challenge.”
The Lions will face neighbours, the Vodacom Bulls in their second pre-season game in Polokwane this coming weekend, a match that will see them start to move closer to their strongest team on paper after the one-sided first outing in Kempton Park this past weekend. But Ackermann is adamant that there are still places open in the final squad, and that players certainly still have a chance to impress.
“We will also move closer to our strongest team that our combinations can start playing together. There are still places where players are still fighting to be No 1,” he explained.
“We will make sure between this weekend and next that everyone has played and then we will choose our best group for the tour. A few players can show us this weekend how good their form is, and the rest next weekend against the Jaguares. We’re hoping for a selection headache.”
This year the Lions will have three pre-season games – the third being on February 19 against the Jaguares at Ellis Park – as opposed to only one last year. While some teams feel more is less, the Lions have a specific plan with their pre-season preparations this year.
“I want to give everyone a fair chance to secure their place in the touring team. The other thing is that last year we had 10 games before our bye week, so we felt we really could only afford one warm-up game. This year we have our bye week after four weeks of the competition. We feel we can have that extra preparation. Also, it isn’t as if one player will play in all three warm-up games. We will move players around, that is why we felt we can play an extra game.
“It has worked out pretty well, especially after the fact that this past weekend’s games didn’t test us as much as we would have liked. We want to see over the next two weekends where we are at this stage of the season.
“I saw the Argentinean touring squad and there are a lot of test players in their squad. I feel it is a great opportunity for players to test themselves against a quality test team. We play those teams later in the competition and we also get an idea of what to expect.”
The Lions will be hoping the unfortunate injury spectre doesn’t rear its head during the pre-season games and if they come through unscathed, they believe they will be ready for their first challenge – facing the Japanese newcomers – the Sunwolves – in Tokyo on February 27.