As South Africa’s lone survivors, just 80 minutes separate them from making Super Rugby history as the Lions carry the dreams of the nation by hosting the Highlanders in one of the competition’s showpieces at Ellis Park this afternoon.
The Lions story reads like something from a fiction novel, being kicked out of the competition just three years ago but now in sight of a historic first Super Rugby final.
While there’s heavy pressure riding on today’s game, Lions coach Johan Ackermann said he has had no trouble sleeping.
“I don’t know if it’s just me, but there’s a calmness visible, nothing is different. It feels like just another game; I don’t struggle to sleep. I sleep my normal hours, up early morning,” he said.
“The hype started building by Friday and Saturday, but the whole week was quite relaxed. Obviously we are honoured and privileged. Like I said after the Crusaders game, it was a special win, but the Highlanders will pose a different challenge.”
If the Lions win and the Chiefs beat the Hurricanes in the earlier semifinal, the final will take place at Ellis Park next weekend. But if the Hurricanes win and the Lions triumph today, they will have to travel to Wellington next week.
Ackermann said with so much at stake on the unfolding of events today, they were not going to watch the first semifinal together as a squad, even though that would mean they would know exactly what was in store for them by their own kickoff.
“No, we don’t do that. We only get together three hours before kick-off and then we build up to the game. I don’t think I’m going to watch the early semifinal, I don’t want to get frustrated.
“I don’t want players to get motivated on somebody else’s game; we have an obligation towards our own season and also to the supporters who are going to come out and support us.
“We always said we want our home ground to be a tough place to come to and let’s finish the job here before worrying about anything after that. We can’t control next week,” he said.
Ackermann said it was only realistic to start dreaming big now that they were so close, but said he had been very happy with the composure in the side with psychologist Dr Jannie Putter playing a crucial role in the mind-set of the players.
“If you asked me in January about playing a semifinal at home and being in the top four of this competition, I would have said that’s awesome,” said Ackermann.
“So the season in my view has been a great success, but if you have got your hands on it or a have a taste of something, you want to try to go all the way. We have that opportunity, but at this stage everything is calm and there are no butterflies yet.”
- By late yesterday 45 000 tickets had been sold and the Lions hoped it would reach close to capacity by kick-off. All parking tickets have been sold out but fans have been advised to make use of the Gautrain, with the last bus departing from the stadium at 7pm.