On Saturday at Loftus Versfeld, Johan Ackermann plays his final first class match – 20 years almost to the day that he made his Northern Transvaal debut on the same ground.
This time though, he is finishing against the Bulls as the Sharks take on the Super 14 champions at Loftus Versfeld.
Ackermann’s retirement from first class rugby has had many a false dawn but he assures us that this Saturday evening, the sun will finally set on his remarkable career. “This time, for sure,” he said.
Ackermann, 38 on June 3, has been a contradiction in terms throughout a career that has had more highs and lows than a Disney World roller coaster. When he pulls a rugby jersey over his head he is tungsten steel personified – his teammates thank the rugby gods for their good fortune, while the opposition’s sentiment is a mixture of fear and respect – but when he takes off that jersey you will not meet a nicer, more obliging, humble man.
“This has got to be my final game for the Sharks – I start work on Monday in Cape Town (as a sales manager for a petroleum company),” he said. “I was supposed to start a month ago but the Sharks asked me to come out of retirement for their first three matches because of the injury to Steven Sykes. My new boss was kind enough to let me play these three games (Force, Stormers, Bulls).”
Ackermann says he got the call regarding a “proper” job late last year out of the blue, just as he was considering what to do with his life after rugby.
Jake White had paid his respects to Ackermann by giving him a surprise call-up to the Springbok team to play the Barbarians at Twickenham.
“After that match I thought it was all over … and then I got the call from Dick Muir in January,” he said.
“When I arrived (from Pretoria, the location of the family home) for the warm-up game against the Lions my boots were still caked in Twickenham mud).”
Fortunately, Ackermann is a fitness fanatic and had been in training, although he was doing more cycling and swimming than running.
Then again, he is picked to direct the traffic in the forward exchanges, not gallop down the wing. And his form for the Sharks against the Force and the Stormers has been phenomenal.
Ackermann’s form, considering that he is in his mid-to-late 30s, is proof that age is nothing but a number with players that keep fit and have the right attitude.
In 2006 and 2007, he impressed Jake White, who had no hesitation in picking him for the Boks. When he played against the Wallabies in Sydney last year, he was the oldest Springbok at 37 years and 34 days. Second is Boy Morkel (36 years and 258 days), third is Deon Lotter (35 years, 307 days) and next Frik du Preez (35 years, 252 days).
After his debut for the Boks in the match against Fiji at Loftus Versfeld in 1996, he played three more Tests that year (he was with the Bulls then), then was in the international wilderness for five years; as a Lions player he played four Tests in 2001 before another five-year exile ended in 2006 when as a Shark he was picked for a five-Test run that ended last year.
His first exile from the Boks was as a result of his two-year ban for the use of a banned substance.
It could be said that Ackermann has had had three separate careers: his time with the Bulls and the Boks; with the Lions and the Boks and then his latter day career with the Sharks and the Boks. Let us also not forget his seasons with Griquas.
The reason for his longevity, besides the break his body enjoyed during that forced two-year hiatus, is because Ackermann has played rugby for the right reasons – he loves the game.
o This article was originally published on page 25 of Pretoria News on February 28, 2008