Lions coach Johan Ackermann decided to roll the dice this past weekend, sending a weakened side to Argentina to play the Jaguares in their final game of the normal season before the knockout stage of this year’s Super Rugby tournament gets underway.
It was a bold choice, and one which would have dire consequences if backfired. If the Lions had won, they would top the overall log and line up a home quarter-final against the Sharks. They didn’t win. And they slipped to the No. 2 spot on the log, meaning that the seven-time champions, the Crusaders, will be opposite the Lions at Ellis Park this coming weekend.
There’s valid criticism to be made of Ackermann here, as critics argue that sending the Lions’ first-string side would’ve almost guaranteed them the win in Buenos Aires and an “easier” quarter-final against an inconsistent Sharks side. But banking on the most favourable outcome doesn’t win trophies; beating the best does.
While the core Lions team would’ve undoubtedly performed better against the Jaguares, there’s no assurance that the Lions would’ve won either way. The Jaguares, while depleted, did play a strong game and easily could’ve upped their tempo in their hostile venue against an even better team.
Next to his appreciation of attacking rugby, one of Ackermann’s best traits since his tenure at the Lions is the importance of player management and welfare. Creating depth, allowing recovery, and grooming young players has resulted in a team fighting against relegation three season ago, to now competing in the play-offs. Sending a second-rate side to Argentina mustn’t be confused for complacency, but rather confidence and care-taking in his key players. The likes of Elton Jantjies, Warren Whitely, Jaco Kriel, Lionel Mapoe, Ruan Combrinck, Franco Mostert, Faf de Klerk, and Julian Redelinghuys have all been pivotal in the Lions’ 2016 campaign, and endured a tough international series with the Springboks against Ireland. Sending them to Argentina would’ve been somewhat laboursome for their mental and physical betterment.
As for the consequent opposition, the Crusaders will indubitably pack a serious punch in Johannesburg. But as mentioned earlier, and is the case with all tournaments, you have to take on the best to be the best. With the Lions having the chance at home to eliminate the Crusaders before finding themselves possibly heading to Christchurch at a later stage is an opportunity unto itself.
Ackermann’s decision should be applauded. While it didn’t result in the desired outcome, brave decisions from coaches should be embraced in South African rugby, rather than lamenting for not playing it safe. The commitment to rest and prepare the key squad far outweighs the consequence to play a “tougher” team. And it should be as simple as that.
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