Rugby: Rainbows' end for Springboks

Paul Stephens sees victory fail to restore the Bokke's aura of invincibility
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For the better part of two months, the most vivid colours blazing across the Rainbow Nation have been the red, white and blue of the Union Jack, with a generous splash of emerald to recognise the invaluable part the Irish contingent have played in the British Lions' South African odyssey, which reached its muscle-wrenching conclusion at a baying, cacophonous Ellis Park on Saturday evening.

By the time the floodlights had been dimmed at this towering citadel on the high veldt, where even the mighty All Blacks have managed to win only twice in 68 years, the only colours to be seen were the green and gold of the Springbok jersey.

The Bokke had deserved their moment of triumph, though no more than the Lions deserved to take the series 2-1 after rocking South African rugby to its very foundations with that thrilling victory in Cape Town, which destroyed the arrogant Springbok assumption of invincibility.

The size of the task confronting Fran Cotton and Ian McGeechan, who were required to build a team in six weeks capable of beating the Springboks, can be gauged when one considers that it took New Zealand almost 70 years to achieve this.

When Sean Fitzpatrick's men were in Johannesburg last year with a side that, for the most part, had been together for five years, they, too, crumbled before a Springbok onslaught, 32-22, when victory would have earned them the first Test whitewash on South African soil this century. It was beyond the All Blacks. It was just out of reach for the Lions. It was no disgrace for either.

And yet, as Saturday's match entered its final, climactic quarter, another result-defying ending was in prospect, until the Lions' wearying defence was breached by Andre Snyman and Pieter Rossouw.

But Martin Johnson's Lions need no apologists for their shortcomings, for where there were any they were masked by a mutual understanding that if at times they could be subdued by the Springboks, on no terms would they submit to them. There were no ambiguities about these Lions; at least, not in their mutual dedication to the cause.

From first day to last, they were a band of brothers. There were no cliques, no national groupings, nor was there any transparent homesickness or griping that has undermined some Lions tours. For this the management and coaching staff must take full credit.

On match days, Johnson led by example. He was a big man in all senses. Never once did he let his players' heads drop. Not even when Andre Joubert went in for the Boks' third try in Durban, or, before then when the crippling injury toll began to assume tour-threatening proportions.

In the provincial games, McGeechan was able to call on the four-square Jason Leonard, Nigel Redman - who replaced Doddie Weir - Tim Rodber and the wholehearted Scot, Rob Wainwright, to lead the side. All four did so with distinction.

Then there were those, like Tom Smith, Paul Wallace and Matt Dawson, who came in for the desperately unfortunate Robert Howley. Each played to a standard that was considered beyond them.

In years to come these Lions will be spoken of in the same revered tones as the 1974 Invincibles. They deserve nothing less.