Ruan Ackermann is in dominant, authoritative form. He’s playing the type of ‘knock the door down’ rugby that appears destined to finally prise open a long-awaited opportunity at international level.
At the start of the year, Ackermann celebrated his 100th appearance for Gloucester with a standout performance against Harlequins, while his two-try display in another Man of the Match effort against London Irish in early February prompted coach George Skivington to suggest the dynamic back-rower must come into the conversation for an England call-up.
It’s been a period of consistent, dynamic play at a time when the Pretoria-born forward has committed his long-term future to Gloucester just 18 months out from the 2023 World Cup. Yet, when Ackermann is asked whether he feels like he is playing the best rugby of his career, his answer is as measured as it is insightful.
“Let me put it this way, I feel like I’ve been playing the most comfortable and stress-free rugby of my career. I’m clear on what I want to do on the field, what the team expects from me and what the coaches want from me. Once you don’t have those worries it takes a lot of pressure off, and I know what my responsibility is to the team. That sort of environment is conducive to performing well. I’m the type of person who doesn’t want to let someone down once they’ve made it clear what their expectations are of me.”
Ackermann’s pathway to such professional serenity has certainly followed a circuitous route. Born into a rugby family – his father and former Gloucester coach Johan played 13 Tests for the Springboks – it meant that high expectations and extra pressure were constant bedfellows.
Although blessed with rugby genes, natural ability and plenty of size on his side from a young age, Ackermann never went to one of South Africa’s traditional powerhouse rugby schools. Instead his early rugby ‘lessons’ came on the hard and unforgiving fields of Pretoria, where he emerged as a star performer for lesser-known Garsfontein High School before joining the Lions’ junior academy in 2015.
It would prove to be the precursor to a career of steady progress. The Lions, once seen as the whipping boys of Super Rugby, were then at the start of a remarkable revolution that ultimately saw a golden generation of players lead the Johannesburg-based side to three successive finals between 2016 and 2018.
That success was founded largely on the leadership strengths of Ackermann Snr after his promotion to the Lions head coach role after the departure of John Mitchell at the end of 2012. In the space of a few short years, a team of largely unknown players was quickly transformed into a tight-knit group of title contenders who played some of the most ambitious and attractive rugby in Super Rugby history.
At times I felt I had to continually prove myself because some critics would say ‘oh, you’re only playing because your father is the coach’.
“To be involved in that squad during that period was unbelievable,” Ackermann reflects. “I didn’t miss a single game in the 2016 and 2017 seasons when we only lost six or seven games in those two years. I learned a lot, travelled the world and went up against so many quality players. Playing in a few knockout games also helped me to get used to pressure quite early. It was every youngster’s dream come true, even though at times I felt I had to continually prove myself because some critics would say ‘oh, you’re only playing because your father is the coach’.”
Nevertheless, the success of the Lions brought both father and son to the brink of national honours, with Johan linked to the Springbok top job during a period of struggles under Allister Coetzee, while Ruan featured twice for South Africa A in 2017.
In the end, it was Gloucester who came calling for the services of a new coach (cue the arrival of Johan) and also sought to recruit a multi-talented loose forward. With this in mind, Ruan takes up the story: “I had never been interested in leaving South Africa, but when the opportunity arose to join Gloucester with my dad, it was the right move to make. I knew playing in the Premiership in different conditions and against some of the leading players in world rugby would challenge me as a player and force me to evolve my game. Of course, financially it also made sense, while the timing meant I arrived just under the three-year rule to acquire my EQP (England Qualified Player) status.”
Now, after five years at Gloucester, the versatile back-rower has entrenched himself and is seen as one of the club’s finest imports. Just last year he signed a new multi-year contract extension, and recent form has brought him as close as he’s ever been to an England call-up.
I’ve had some brief chats with Eddie (Jones) recently, and he’s been encouraging of my performances and the physicality he’s seen, while also pointing out some stuff to keep working on.
“I would love to test myself at international level and to expose myself to that pressure,” Ackermann says. “I’ve been playing pro rugby for seven years now and I want to see if I can take that next step up. I’ve obviously played with and against international players, and it just makes me hungry to reach that next level.
“I’ve had some brief chats with Eddie (Jones) recently, and he’s been encouraging of my performances and the physicality he’s seen, while also pointing out some stuff to keep working on. It is a confidence booster to know that the hard work is paying off and being noticed. All I can do now is just continue performing as consistently as I can for Gloucester.”
Ackermann’s commitment to the Kingsholm club is a defining feature of his current career path. Back in 2020, he could well have headed in a different direction when his father abruptly left his Gloucester gig to coach in Japan.
“It did come as a surprise when I heard he was leaving,” Ruan reflects. “I found out at the same time as everyone else, but my dad actually encouraged me to stay at Gloucester. He approached it more as a father-son conversation rather than as a coach-player relationship, and he just said I’d done all the hard work and that if he was in my shoes he’d stay and grab whatever chances came my way.
“My dad has always provided amazing support during my rugby career, and ever since we went in different directions it’s the most honest he’s ever been with me because he’s no longer my coach. He has been watching the games from a different perspective and is able to just give me advice purely from a father’s point of view.”
Ackermann adds that his first interactions with Skivington also helped to convince him that it was the correct decision to stick with Gloucester.
“Literally the first thing George said to me was that he had a lot of respect for my father and for me as a player, and that he just wanted to come in and help make me a better player. As soon as I heard that, I felt that I needed to repay the respect he’d shown me, and so far, it’s been really good for us.
George (Skivington) has encouraged me to develop some of my other skills. I’ve worked hard at competing at the breakdown, as well as on my passing game and work under the high ball.
“George doesn’t overcomplicate things. He values trust and hard work from his players. Right from the off I knew that I could relate to his philosophy around coaching and the game. I’ve always loved getting involved in the physical stuff, but George has encouraged me to develop some of my other skills. I’ve worked hard at competing at the breakdown, as well as on my passing game and work under the high ball. Being dominant in the carry and on defence is important, but I’ve grown to appreciate the value of all-round work rate and link play.”
Off the field, the 27-year-old also finds himself in a healthy space. Happily engaged, Ackermann and fiancé Kirsty recently relocated to Gloucestershire, while he admits to being smitten with their French bulldog Baloo.
Although the UK weather has taken some getting used to, England is now home. Yet, this is not to say that he has turned his back on South Africa, or the Springboks for that matter.
“It’s probably the toughest question to answer, because you don’t want to say something that makes it seem like you’re on one side or the other,” Ackermann acknowledges. “I’ve never said that I don’t want to play for the Springboks and only want to go all out for England, or vice versa.
“The simplest way to put it is that I’m just desperate to play international rugby one day, and it’s not a case of choosing between South Africa or England because at the end of the day they are two of the leading teams in world rugby. It would be a dream to play for any international side of that quality. It’s also not up to me to choose because it all depends on what country or coach believes I’m good enough. Ultimately, if that opportunity arrived, I would give my absolute everything on the field no matter which jersey I pulled on.”