The precinct around Ellis Park needed a makeover. That's happening at a decent clip and as construction, transport and investment continue in Doornfontein, there's been an upgrade in their resident Lions rugby side.

Heading that push is coach Johan Ackermann whose career had a parallel thrust after he was banned 20 years ago for steroid use. The Springbok lock cleaned up his act and played until his late thirties before moulding the Lions into the premium side in South Africa.

The genesis of that revolution is reputed to hit Ackermann as he flew home from another defeat in New Zealand. South African sides were restricted by their traditional plan about physical dominance backed by goal-kicking.

It was a template which had served them well but changes in rugby meant sides needed broader skills to foot it, consistently, with the best in Super Rugby. Grunt up front was still mandatory but forwards needed to upgrade their athleticism to complement the backs who had to boost their breakdown and tackle work.


Ackermann had a receptive audience from Lions players who were deemed unfashionable or out of the international loop when he graduated to head coach in 2014. He punched into that mentality, finding players who were ambitious rather than clocking in for a paycheck, those who were willing to learn and were fired by the new methods.

Old habits took time to pare away, especially under pressure when players' natural instincts are to revert to type. The first couple of years were tough but the results surged in the last two seasons even if the Springbok selectors failed to be convinced.

The Lions made the final last year then fell to the Hurricanes when they travelled to the showdown in the Cake Tin. Quirks of the draw meant the Lions avoided any games against NZ teams until this weekend's semifinal and rematch of the 2016 final.

This time it's the Canes who have to deal with the long-distance travel and playing away from the familiarity of their rugby rectangle in the capital. No big deal?

Players are creatures of habit and most feel more at ease with their usual routines and surroundings than they do at somewhere like Ellis Park where the sentiments will be all about the Lions and continuing Ackermann's success before he leaves to coach Gloucester.

Last year, the Lions captain Warren Whiteley returned from two months out with a calf injury to play in the final but his impact was reduced. This season his high-quality work at No 8 convinced the Springbok selectors he was the man to lead the nation into their June internationals until a pelvic injury ruled him out for two months.

Speculation surfaced about a shock semifinal return for Whiteley but it has been largely ignored and put into the once bitten basket.

It's the Canes who have got a break with their leader, Dane Coles ready for this rumble after busting out a quarterfinal cameo fitness recital.


His contest with Lions hooker Malcolm Marx should be a humdinger and a glimpse of what lies ahead in the Rugby Championship.

Marx rates highly in stats around the breakdowns, likes to get the ball in his hand and is on the numbers with his lineout and scrum work. He carries a feisty edge to all his play much like the man in the No 2 jersey for the Hurricanes.