They don’t come much tighter than this. Nor, from the perspective of the British and Irish Lions, are they more heartbreaking. For the second time in this century, South Africa has secured a series from the Lions by the slightest margin through the boot of Morne Steyn, who appeared with a penalty goal in the 79th minute to break the hearts of tourists, such as it did in Pretoria in 2009.
What a crushing disappointment for the touring team, what a desperate sense of deja vu. At least it was a compelling finale to restore neutral faith in rugby at the end of a contentious series. The momentum repeatedly shifted in one direction and then the next after Cheslin Kolbe’s try in the 56th minute threatened to end the competition.
Finn Russell, the Lions’ replacement, took a magnificent 45-meter penalty to tie the scores at 13-13, only for Steyn, eyes dead, to push his team back to the front.
Russell leveled the score once more, but his counterpart, not for the first time, was working on a different and hardly believable script.
Of the Lions there was bravery and skill in abundance; Only once their influential loose-headed mainstay Wyn Jones left the fray in the 43rd minute did the Springboks begin to regain even a semblance of stability from set pieces.
The margins, however, were small. The TMO took a long, long look at Kolbe’s scoring build, with the ball having fired at Jasper Wiese from Ali Price’s box kick. The decision was that it had gone up rather than forward with no convincing evidence to rule out the attempt.
However, in the final analysis, the Lions will know that they had enough opportunities to seize the destiny themselves having led 10-6 at halftime without capitalizing on their initial dominance. Nor can they claim that they have had the rough end of the programming stick. However, even three successive tests at sea level could not prevent the world champions from repeating their 2-1 margin in the series 12 years ago.
At the end of such a long and punishing season, it was a tense occasion from the beginning. The pre-match fog that had darkened the Western Cape coastline and distant Robben Island earlier in the day had cleared, but was quickly replaced by a cloud of immediate injuries for the visitors. Eleven minutes had elapsed when a limping Dan Biggar, who had already seen a penalty shot just fly by, had to be helped by a shin injury and was replaced by Russell.
With a stroke of the pen, the dynamics of the game were altered. Russell is a player who makes things happen and his impact was almost immediate. A clever cross kick allowed Josh Adams to make some good ground and very soon he was scoring a great penalty goal after the Lions front row forced a scrum penalty.
Even better was to continue for the visitors after 16 minutes. A deft take on Maro Itoje’s lineout set up a driven maul and, in a surprising reversal of last week’s balance of power, the Lions group came unstoppably over the line with Ken Owens, making their first outing in the Test of the Lions, claiming the score.
Without Biggar, could Russell add the extras? Silly question. The Racing 92 fly-half knocked down the conversion with languid nonchalance and, at 10-3, the Lions perked up appropriately. With a little more composure, they could easily have had two or three more tries, most obviously when Tom Curry was frustratedly penalized when another maul was sinisterly advancing towards the Springbok line.
If Liam Williams had deflected Adams unmarked to the right instead of going himself, he would have built up more pressure on one side of the Boks, who were quickly realizing they were up against a very different breed from the Lions. If a lineout pitch to Alun Wyn Jones hadn’t been stolen 10 yards from the hosts’ line, the Lions could have entered the interval with a double-digit lead.
South Africa was also relieved when the TMO ruled that Wiese had not committed an act of foul play when he charged into a ruck and struck Wyn Jones with a painful blow to the back.
However, the halftime statistics were tough: 74% territory and 69% possession in favor of the Lions. The only lingering doubt at the visiting camp was that they should have come out with more points to show for all their energy and hard work.
How would the Springboks respond? There is something of the Heston Blumenthals in their head coach, Jacques Nienaber: studious and detailed, it seems that he would be useful with a kitchen torch. A bit of fire in the field and brimstone in the second half was a certainty, even in the absence of fans fanning the flames.
And it duly materialized. Kolbe’s try and Handre Pollard’s conversion put their team ahead for the first time in the game, only for Russell and Steyn to take turns calming their nerves at home before the final, painful kick to the Los Angeles’ solar plexus. visitors.
The 37-year-old Steyn has circled the block many times and was supposed to be Pollard’s second fiddle after a five-year absence from international play; fate, however, had other ideas.
By the time the next Lions team arrives in Australia in 2025, their disappointment may have subsided a bit, but the pain of this result won’t go away for a while.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism