Johannesburg – Whatever happens on Saturday at Ellis Park, the Johan Ackermann era at the Lions will come to an end on a stage that is fitting.
By Monday afternoon, over 50 000 tickets had already been sold for Saturday’s Super Rugby final against the Crusaders.
Capacity at the stadium is 62 000, and with the whole week ahead it looks like the match will be sold out.
Ackermann, who has been at the Lions since 2013, will leave South African shores at the end of Super Rugby to take up his new position at Gloucester in the English Premiership.
When he took the reins in Johannesburg, the Lions were not even playing Super Rugby and had been relegated from the 2013 edition of the competition to make way for the Southern Kings.
Following a stint from John Mitchell that got ugly between coach and franchise in 2012, the Lions had reached the bottom of the barrel.
Ackermann was the man tasked with turning it all around.
Upon their return to Super Rugby in 2014, the Lions won seven on their 16 matches to finish 12th on the overall log.
In 2015, they won nine and drew one of 16, missing out on a play-off spot by a whisker as the Stormers under Allister Coetzee topped the South African Conference.
Last year, the Lions were runners-up after losing to the Hurricanes in Wellington in the final, and this year they have lost just once all season.
They have improved every year, and have reached their peak just as Ackermann is about to bow out.
The script could not be written any better, and all that is left now is for the Lions to win one more game against the Crusaders on Saturday to ensure that Ackermann leaves a champion.
It is hard not to make this match about the coach, given what he has done for the Lions over the last five years, but regardless of what happens Ackermann has taken this side as far as he can.
“For me, to see 60 000 people here will be the ultimate. I couldn’t really ask for more,” said Ackermann after his side’s historic 44-29 win over the Hurricanes this past weekend.
“I know that time is running out, but every time I wish these players well before they go out to play it is special for me.
“I think back to 2013, 2014 and 2015 and where we are now … there are so many people to say thank you to. My whole management, the people behind the scenes, the people that cut the grass, the administrators … it’s all memories that I have every time I drive into the stadium.”
Ackermann knows that anything can happen. He knows that the Crusaders are quality and he knows that, even with all of the analysis in the world, the Lions will have to turn up on the day.
But, the man of faith that Ackermann is, he also knows that rugby is part of a far bigger picture.
“The biggest thing is my family, who have walked with me on this road through the high and low points,” he said.
“Now we have one more match … it’s a privilege to play in a final in front of your home crowd.”
Kick-off on Saturday is at 16:00.