It is difficult to work out how many Lions rugby matches I have attended in my almost eight years as a sports reporter for Eyewitness News.
What I do know, is that it has been a tumultuous journey for Lions fans. I can recall covering a Currie Cup match in 2010, a freezing Friday night in Johannesburg which saw the two teams kick off at 19:00. There were 3,500 people in the stadium that evening. The only thing that matched fan’s feelings towards the Lions, was the blistering cold. To try and explain how empty the stadium looked is difficult, but I will try and put it into perspective. This year’s Super Rugby semi-final against the Hurricanes saw 32,000 fans go through the turnstiles at Ellis Park, and still, the stadium looked disappointingly empty. When 3,500 fans walk through those same turnstiles? It made it feel like a training match where you could literally hear the calls from the players from the stands. Frighteningly, that wasn’t even the lowest point for this once proud union, that was still to come.
John Mitchell came to the franchise and breathed new life into a young, inexperienced group. The hard, no nonsense Kiwi somehow managed to win the 2011 Currie Cup, beating the Sharks 42-16 in the final.
The win was so special, it even prompted then captain Josh Strauss to shave his famous beard.
Johan Ackermann was his assistant, and would’ve definitely learnt a lot from that campaign, lessons in tenacity, belief and fight. Mitchell’s time came to end and his assistant, Ackers, as he is affectionately known, took over. Cue the beginning of one of the best comeback stories in sport.
After finishing on the bottom of the Super Rugby table for the third time in five seasons, SA Rugby voted to relegate the Lions from the competition and promote the Southern Kings. Their form was so bad, that this meme did the rounds on social media.
In the beginning of 2013, the Golden Lions Rugby Union launched the Lions Challenge Series. It was seen as their alternative to Super Rugby, a chance to expand their brand and take the union abroad. At times, the GLRU tried to convince the media that this was an exciting new avenue for the Lions product, but deep down, we all knew, missing out on the world’s premier club rugby competition was hurting them.
A particular lowlight was covering the Lions vs Russia National team match and having to watch Lions President Kevin De Klerk parade around with a dead bear on his shoulders, a gift from his Russian counterpart.
Several of the scheduled Lions Challenge games never took place which was a blessing in disguise for everyone. After that car wreck of a tournament, the Lions managed to beat the Kings in the all-important Super Rugby promotion matches and were promoted back into Super Rugby for 2014.
They finished 12th in 2014 and just missed out on a play-off spot in 2015 in a campaign that saw them win 9/16 matches, including 3/4 on tour to Australasia.
The upward curve continued in 2016 as the Lions topped the Africa group and were awarded with their first conference trophy. They ended 2nd on the overall log and qualified for their first knockout match since being re-branded as the Lions. In the quarter-final they beat the Crusaders and the Highlanders in the semi-final to qualify for their first final since 1996. They lost the final to the Hurricanes, going down 20-3 at a cold, wet Westpac Stadium.
That brings us to 2017. A record breaking year has seen the Lions become only the second South African franchise since the Bulls to qualify for back-to-back finals. Records tumbled and a once frightened, scarred city, is now the center of SA Rugby. There are more Lions in the Springbok team than we’ve ever seen. The Captain is a Lion. The style of play is Lion. Johan Ackermann has, with his support team, changed the face of Lions, and South African, rugby. His relationship with the players, his character, his strong faith, it has all rubbed off onto his players, who, even when setting this year’s competition alight, humbly maintain that they haven’t done anything just yet.
Ackers played for this union between 1999 and 2001. But on August 5, 2017 he will return as the coach, the leader and the glue that keeps this team together, in the hope of winning this converted title, something that pundits, fans and even stuffed bears wouldn’t have bet five cents on a few years back.
Johan Ackermann – Destiny Beckons.