'Rugby close to our hearts'

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It Was a result both sides could live with: South Africa won this battle, but the Lions already had won the war. With little on the line but pride, the Springboks finally found a kicking game to go along with their running attack to down the visitors.

"It was a painful experience to lose the series," the Springbok coach, Carel du Plessis said. "They really needed this one."

Still, there were plenty of smiles from the Lions in what was their last Test match this century. "I think people underestimated us," the manager, Fran Cotton, said. "It's been a super effort by all involved. They exceeded expectations."

Asked to compare this squad with the virtuoso 1974 team, Cotton said both had a "tremendous sense of purpose." It was the first Lions tour of South Africa in 17 years, and they are not scheduled to return until 2005.

"It's a very hard place to play," the captain, Martin Johnson, said. "We knew from the outset that if we didn't play as a team, we didn't stand a chance."

The outside-half, Mike Catt, who would have loved to have inflicted a 3-0 series whitewash on the country of his birth, said: "In the second half there were mindless penalties in crucial positions conceded when we could have scored.

"The opportunities were there and if we had taken them we could have beaten them. It was one of the those games. We played some very good rugby but at times we just threw the ball away. But it has been a great tour."

The coach, Ian McGeechan, added: "We had them rocking at 23-16 but to be fair to South Africa they played well in the second half." For McGeechan, the tour beats even the 1974 series - when he was one of the series-winning squad - for sheer satisfaction. "This is the best, without a doubt," he said. "The unity of the players has been tremendous and we have played rugby which has been close to our hearts.

"To come to South Africa and win a series when everyone had written us off was always going to be special."