The Lions might have lost another series, but they have salvaged their battered reputation this tour. Seldom can there have been a more fluctuating, absorbing and thrilling international than this – the 80 minutes contained four seasons in one, and it was 13 minutes into stoppage time when the local hero, Morne Steyn, who had come off the bench in the final quarter, kicked a penalty from five yards inside his own half to seal the series and deny the tourists the draw that was the very least they deserved for their tactical acuity and forward power.
South Africa scored three tries to one, the third in the right corner by another replacement, Jaque Fourie, two minutes into stoppage time after an inordinately long review by the television official, Stuart Dickinson, who in the same role in the 2007 World Cup final denied the England wing Mark Cueto a try against the Springboks.
Fourie fended off Ronan O’Gara before diving through two tackles and stretching out for the line. He grounded the ball cleanly, but a replay from one angle suggested his right leg might have been dragged into touch just before he touched down. The referee, Christophe Berdos, certainly thought so because he did not award the try when Dickinson told him he could and queried whether Fourie had been tackled into touch. Dickinson responded that the foot in question belonged to another replacement, Heinrich Brussow, and the Lions found themselves behind for the first time in the match.
Stephen Jones equalised with a 40-yard penalty 10 minutes into time added on after he had been tackled high by the replacement, Andries Bekker. A draw would have been more than the quality of South Africa’s game merited, and O’Gara, a replacement for a dazed Brian O’Driscoll, had one final tilt at victory. He returned a wayward Morne Steyn drop goal with a high kick, Fourie du Preez went for the ball, but was taken out in the air by O’Gara.
Up stepped Steyn. The South Africa coach, Peter de Villiers, made the mistake the previous week of bringing on replacements too early. Steyn, who helped the Pretoria-based Bulls win the Super 14 last month, had been pacing the touchline minutes earlier, but de Villiers did not shift Ruan Pienaar from outside-half, even though his kicking for goal was inaccurate and he had struggled throughout to launch his back division. Steyn changed the dynamics of the game – he ran, he linked, he kicked and he dragged his side back from the brink at a time when the Lions, not helped by serious injuries to key players such as O’Driscoll, Jamie Roberts and Gethin Jenkins, slackened their grip.
“Morne does not miss kicks like this,” said a local official as the 20,000 Lions fans fell silent for the first time. Never mind that it was from some 58 yards and that the final whistle would sound the next time the ball went dead. Pienaar had missed two from closer range, but Morne left the Lions in mourning. Never mind that the tourists had played the smarter rugby and at enough pace to give last week’s intimidators, Bismarck du Plessis and Bakkies Botha, less time and energy to talk. South Africa are hard on the eye, but they are formidably tough to beat.
Simon Shaw, at 35, played one of the games of his life, defying the laws of altitude and finishing as strongly as he started. Andrew Sheridan had never appeared more aggressive when he replaced a concussed Gethin Jenkins early in the second half, and South Africa had no answer.
The scrum was the dominating factor last week. The Lions were second best then, but it was not until 18 minutes into the game that one was formed yesterday. A second was ordered immediately afterwards when Luke Fitzgerald was ushered over his own line by Frans Steyn, and South Africa had a scrum five. They went for the shove and stalled, and as the Lions applied the squeeze Du Plessis popped up and conceded a penalty.
The Lions were 10-5 ahead at that point, having been gifted the initiative. South Africa had been awarded a penalty, having driven a maul 15 yards straight from receiving the kick-off, but it was reversed after the touch judge, Bryce Lawrence, flagged Schalk Burger for poking fingers into the left eye of Fitzgerald.
Burger, one minute into his 50th Test, received only a yellow card, but he will surely be cited. Either way, it was a red-card offence and he should not have been around to help inspire his side’s comeback in the final quarter.
Jones kicked a penalty after the Lions had opted to go for a line-out from the one conceded by Burger, and Jones’s slick pass out of the back of his hand after nine minutes provided room for Rob Kearney to wrong-foot Frans Steyn and score. The Lions were 10-0 up in no time, as South Africa had been in Durban, and although the Springboks rallied with a well-worked try by JP Pietersen, the Lions extended their lead with two further Jones penalties. But they wasted chances after making clean breaks, most notably when Jenkins dithered instead of passing to the unmarked Roberts outside him.
Frans Steyn’s long-range penalty closed the interval gap to eight points, but the Lions, as South Africa had been the previous week, became caught between caution and desire, not helped by the loss of their two props, Jenkins and Adam Jones, to injuries that will rule them out of the final Test. Uncontested scrums resulted, and when the tourists went 19-8 ahead through Jones’s fourth penalty with 14 minutes of normal time to go, the series looked in the balance. Then Du Preez and Morne Steyn, with his first touch of the ball, worked in Bryan Habana from a scrum, Steyn and Jones exchanged penalties, before those dramatic events that turned the game. The Lions, though, will not return home with a stained character – unlike in 2001 and 2005 – and their one consolation was that they had taken part in a memorable game that shamed those responsible for the experimental law variations.