Ackermann’s rugby ambition still burning in the cold

Former Lions coach Johan Ackermann on battling the elements in England, why he always takes the tough route and what he hopes to achieve with Gloucester.

As is the case whenever two South Africans living in England have a conversation, Johan Ackermann is soon talking about the weather. 

“I’m actually comfortable with the cold,” says the former Lions coach, who has been in charge at Gloucester since 2017. “I grew up wearing shorts during rugby season, but at least the winters in Johannesburg and Pretoria are dry. It’s everything else I don’t like. Over here it rains and snows, and it gets dark very early. The weather has presented some challenges.”

Not that Ackermann is complaining. He is a man who thrives on challenges. He seeks them out and doesn’t consider a path worth taking if it is not littered with obstacles.

In 2007, he defied the vice of time when, at 37, he became the oldest Springbok to take the field for his country. His record was broken by Victor Matfield, who was capped at age 38 in 2015. The next year he ended his playing career a champion, helping the Sharks end a 12-year Currie Cup drought by beating the Blue Bulls 14-9 in Durban. 

Ackermann cut his teeth as a coach under the chaotic tutelage of John Mitchell at the Lions. He then received a hospital pass in 2013 when he was asked to revive the once powerful union that had fallen to almost unimaginable depths – a scenario tailor-made for this challenge junkie. 

“I’ve always believed that things shouldn’t be easy,” he says on a chilly November morning in the west of England. “I’ve tried to push myself constantly as a coach and as a person. I trust that there is a plan for me. I am here for a reason and don’t want to just coast along.”

Leaving the Lions 

It is with this mindset that Ackermann was able to to walk away from the Lions last year. A solitary Currie Cup win in 2015 does not do his time with the franchise justice. He inherited a rabble of Super Rugby rejects and turned them into bona fide title contenders who played a sumptuous brand of rugby.

A dynasty was within reach. Three agonising defeats in the final to New Zealand heavyweights, twice at the hands of the Crusaders and then the Hurricanes, suggested there was an extra gear still to be found, perhaps a bit more steel in close quarters or some added efficiency out wide. With just one final obstacle to immortality, it would have surely been easier, more sensible, to stay. Why leave?

“I wanted to keep challenging myself in a new environment and in totally new conditions against teams I’d only ever seen on TV,” he said. “I’ll never know if I took the Lions as far as I could have. Maybe it would have been third time lucky in Super Rugby if I’d stayed, but who knows. It was such a difficult decision to make, but I feel good knowing that I left Swys [de Bruin] an experienced team with quality youngsters in the pipeline.”

Ackermann doesn’t dwell on the Lions. His intense gaze – a terrifying sight when he wants it to be – doesn’t look back. “I believe I can take Gloucester to a place they’ve never been before. No one gave us a chance at Ellis Park back in 2013, and it’s the same here. I’m up for this challenge.”

When he arrived, Ackermann found a disjointed, conservative group of players stuck playing a disjointed, conservative game. With nine different nationalities represented, Ackermann has found a way of uniting the team under a unified ethos. Just as he did at the Lions, he has encouraged an openness among his players. Honesty is rewarded. Those who struggle socially are made to feel like they’re part of a family.

Results on the field are starting to reflect this shift. Last season, Gloucester finished seventh in the league, their best placing in five years. In May’s European Rugby Challenge Cup final, the second-tier European club competition, Gloucester lost by just a point to the Cardiff Blues in Balboa. 

Now with maverick fly half Danny Cipriani pulling the strings and six South Africans in the pack – including former Lions Franco Mostert, Jaco Kriel and son Ruan Ackermann – the coach has taken his side to fourth on the table after six matches. 

Club versus country 

Ackermann refuses to get drawn into talking about ending the club’s 11-year wait for the league title. He tiptoes around referee Angus Gardner’s reading of Owen Farrell’s shoulder charge, which controversially went unpunished after the hooter had went off in the Springboks’ loss to England when the two nations met on 3 November. He also refuses to talk about the criticism levelled at hooker Malcolm Marx. 

But he does offer a balanced opinion on international players beholden to their European clubs after the Springboks had to tackle England without Faf de Klerk and Willie le Roux as the match fell outside the international calendar. The pair, along with Mostert, were named in the Boks’ starting lineup for the clash against France in Paris on 10 November once they were available for selection. 

“Think about it from the club’s perspective,” Ackermann suggested. “They pay the players’ salaries and the players knew what they were getting into when they signed. Besides, this wasn’t even a debate a few years ago, so credit to Rassie [Erasmus] for gaining some ground and bringing the overseas players back.”

A biting breeze blows past and we’re back to the weather. “One thing I didn’t anticipate was how it challenges you technically as a coach,” he says. “You’re forced to adjust your plan mid-game. One time up in Newcastle, we had sun, rain, hail and snow across the 80 minutes. It also affects how you prepare the team. I wouldn’t have experienced these challenges if I stayed in South Africa, and I’m definitely a better coach as a result.”

That can be only good news for South African rugby. Ackermann emphasises his allegiance to Gloucester, where he has two years left on his contract. But he also speaks with enthusiasm at the prospect of coaching an international team at some point. Despite being a long way from home, there is one team above all he’d love to lead.

“I’m a proud South African,” he said. “[Against England] I was only supporting the Boks. We braai as much as we can here, even though the weather isn’t great, and I keep in touch with what’s going on back home. But my head and heart are both here with this tremendous club.”

Gloucester is a small town with a population of less than 130 000. There is no football club to speak of, and Gloucestershire County plays its home cricket matches 58km away in Bristol. This is a rugby town. Every one of the fanatical fans who pack out the Kingsholm Stadium is lucky to have a true rugby man at the helm of their club.

“It’s so important to give the people a reason to feel proud,” Ackermann said. “That’s the legacy I want to leave behind. On-field success would be amazing, and we’re working towards it, but I want this team to represent something more important.”

The wind swirls again. Ackermann has a training session to attend. He’s itching to get to it after a two-week break that saw his deputies manage some of the fringe players during the Premiership Rugby Cup. 

It’s out on the field, with a whistle to his mouth and a swarm of rugby-related thoughts running through his head, that he feels at home. Even if it’s a bit darker and a bit wetter than he’s used to.

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