While defending their Currie Cup title is at the forefront of their plans‚ the Golden Lions are well aware that it will not be easy defeating their semifinal opponents‚ the Free State Cheetahs‚ when the two sides meet next week.
The Lions made a lastminute surge into the top four spots on the log of the domestic competition when they booked the final semi spot with a win against the Sharks at Ellis Park to ensure they kept their title defence hopes alive.
The Lions finished the round-robin stages strongly‚ but had an indifferent start to their campaign this season.
“We want to try [to defend the title]‚” Lions coach Johan Ackermann said.
“We did not make it easy for ourselves with some inconsistency at the start. “What is positive is that in the last two weeks we understood the strategy in that we could not afford a loss.”
The Lions know about the toughness of the knockout stages in the domestic competition.
On their way to claiming the title last year, they were involved in a hotly contested semi against the Cheetahs‚ which they ended up winning 43-33 at home in Johannesburg.
They will now have to travel to Bloemfontein, where they will face an in-form Cheetahs side who have managed to win all of their matches so far in the competition.
“Playing the way we did in the last two games gave us an opportunity to know what to expect and made for good preparations for the knockout stages‚” Ackermann said.
“We have a very tough fixture against a Cheetahs side that has been great from the start. “Even when we faced them in last year’s semi they almost knocked us out at Ellis Park.”
The Lions coach says the two-week break between their last game and the semifinal that will be played on Saturday next week will go a long way in preparing the bodies and minds of his charges in their attempt to keep the Currie Cup at Ellis Park.
“The break is good to get rid of the few bumps and bruises. “This is more of a mental break to get the mind and body fresh ‚” he said.
With some quarters questioning the relevance of the South African domestic competition‚ which some believe has been watered down over the years because of the nonparticipation of players who represent the national team‚ Ackermann disagrees.
The former Springbok lock holds firm to the belief that the competition plays a crucial role in the development of players and in preparing them for higher levels like Super Rugby and test rugby.
“Overall‚ the standard of the Currie Cup has been great‚” Ackermann said.
“You look at a side like the Griquas‚ they were competitive and really pushed all the other teams. “And then new faces – players who played well in Super Rugby and carried on in the Currie Cup; guys like Jamba Ulengo at the Bulls‚ RG Snyman – they really showed they are class.”
“You had Nico Lee at the Cheetahs and Francois Venter. “Those are players who have established themselves and made themselves real possible candidates for the national team.”
“We had a lot of new faces‚ guys who grabbed their opportunities. “I do believe the Currie Cup has a place in South African rugby for constantly grooming our players and getting them used to the pressures.”