Lions’ coach Ackermann asleep at the wheel again

Last year, Johan Ackermann, the coach of South Africa’s Lions super rugby team was literally asleep during the final against the Hurricanes. His team lost to the Hurricanes 3-20.

This year, he appeared to be dozing again as his team lost, only to a different New Zealand team, the Crusaders.

The Lions lost a player to a red card about a minute before half-time but given the inherent advantages they had — they were playing at home, at altitude which made the visitors prone to running out of gas, and in dry weather which has always suited them — they could still have won.

The Lions were trailing 3-15 at half-time and this being a game where the winner would end up taking all, they should have used the kickable penalties they were awarded in the second half to move closer on the scoreboard. But for some mysterious reason, they kept going for touch and aiming for a try instead. At least two kickable penalties were wasted in this manner; a score of 9-15 would have given the home team that much more fire in their bellies in the final run home.

The Lions lost loose forward Kwagga Smith a minute before half-time when he collided with Crusaders’ full-back David Havili who had gone up to take a high kick. Smith had no chance of taking the ball and did not go up in the air to contest it either, but just stood there like a water buffalo; it resulted in Havili’s tripping over him and taking a very dangerous toss. Referee Jaco Peyper had no option but to send Smith off.

(As an aside, it is interesting to note the difference in the way that referees react to the likelihood of head and neck injuries these days. I remember a Test match in 2003, when Australia’s Wendell Sailor tackled All Black Mils Muliaina while the latter was in the air. It was much more dangerous than what Smith did but Sailor only got a yellow card.)

The Lions failed to learn from their previous win, against the Waikato Chiefs in the semi-finals. In that game, the Chiefs were terribly tired towards the latter half of the game and, after leading by a big margin at half-time, were beaten 44-29. The trip from New Zealand to Johannesburg and playing at altitude really took its toll.

Thus Ackermann should have told his men to keep the gap between the two teams on the scoreboard as small as possible and go for broke in the last 10 minutes when the Crusaders would be feeling the effects of altitude and the long flight. But by the 62nd minute, when the Lions got their first try, the score had blown out to 3-25. It could well have been 9-25.

(It must be noted that the Crusaders’ coach Scott Robertson displayed a great deal of intelligence in his substitutions, bringing on players off the bench to ensure that those who took the field at the start were not exhausted before they were replaced.)

Given that the Lions also scored with about seven minutes left, taking those two kickable penalties would have put them within two points. And that would have no doubt given them additional energy to fight it out, especially in front of a vociferous home crowd that filled the stadium to its maximum.

Alas, poor instructions from Ackermann again played the Lions false. This is his last game as coach; maybe the man who replaces him will realise that a coach can do a great deal to help a team win.

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