It’s going to be hard to take the emotion out of Saturday’s Super Rugby final between the Lions and the Crusaders.
On the Lions’ side it’s the end of an era, with their coach Johan Ackermann, who helped the franchise rise from the ashes to two consecutive Super Rugby finals, leaving for England. On the other side, this Crusaders team want to create their own identity under Scott Robertson, who himself can make history on Saturday, and move away from the big shadow cast by champion Crusaders teams of the past.
Both coaches experienced a Super Rugby final as players, but only Robertson has had a taste of victory with the Crusaders. Ackermann’s chance of being a winner was cruelly snuffed out in the twilight of his career by a late Bryan Habana try, as the Bulls came from behind to triumph over the Sharks in 2007.
Ackermann can forever erase that horrible memory with a win on Saturday afternoon at Ellis Park. It would be a fitting send-off for the Gloucester-bound coach after he took the Lions from the humiliation of relegation from Super Rugby to the best team in South Africa and one of the best in the competition over the last two years.
Ackermann managed to pull a divided union and team together through camaraderie and empowerment. He allowed the Lions to express themselves on the field by playing an entertaining brand of rugby, without neglecting the fundamentals of the game.
His time with his comrades is running out, and there would be no better send-off for the former Springbok lock than a win in front of 63 000 people on Saturday afternoon.
However, Ackermann says the Super Rugby final result is not going to define his time at the Lions.
“The players know, I’ve said that a couple of times and I will say it again, there will be emotions involved on Saturday. If we win, then everybody will smile, and if we lose everybody will be sad,” Ackermann said.
“But my respect for the players, how they respected me as a coach and my management, will never change. What they have achieved as a group is something special. It is a pleasure to stand up every morning and come all the way from Pretoria, and the result Saturday will not change that.”
Former Crusaders and All Black loose-forward Robertson has managed to put the Christchurch team back on top of the Super Rugby landscape in only his first season in charge, and they will be hunting for their first Super Rugby title in nine years after near misses against the Reds in 2011 and the Waratahs in 2014.
The Crusaders, though, are up against history, as no team has crossed the Indian Ocean for a Super Rugby final and won.
“This team is different and it is our chance to make history,” said Robertson, who entertained journalists with his quirky mannerisms at the Crusaders’ team hotel on Thursday.
“No one has crossed the ocean and performed here in the final, so it is a great challenge to be the first. We won our first three Super Rugby finals away and now we have another opportunity in front of us to create our own history again.”
Robertson also stands on the verge of making history himself, as he could become the first person to win a Super Rugby title both as a player and a coach. And, for a couple of minutes at that media conference he was actually quite serious …
“It would be really emotional … to do it as a player and understand how much it means to the team and I,” Robertson said.
“We’ve received so many messages of support from the old crew, and the recently current crew have been behind us because they know how special this group is. So to do it as a coach and a player would be something amazing.”