The tourists conceded four tries, all of them out of the top drawer, yet still managed to force the South Africans into a state of such acute paranoia that Carel du Plessis, the beleaguered Bokke coach, could barely watch proceedings from his eyrie high in the Ellis Park stand. As Ian McGeechan, the Lions coach, said in the immediate aftermath of an electric contest: "Had we really needed to win the game, I think we could well have done so."
Of course, the Lions did not need to do any such thing, although they dearly wanted to see off the Boks for a third successive weekend and earn themselves a piece of rugby history in the process. Indeed, they played their most positive rugby of the three-Test series thanks to dynamic contributions from Tom Smith, the most gifted prop forward to emerge from Britain for a decade, the ever-dependable Lawrence Dallaglio and, by no means least, Rob Wainwright, who was press-ganged into action on the morning of the match and proceeded to produce a short-side flanker's display of consummate wit and intelligence.
Had it not been for desperate spells of slipshod negligence at the start of each half, the Lions might well have prevailed. Thirteen sloppy points adrift by the quarter-hour mark, the tourists then conceded a soft try to the outstanding Joost van der Westhuizen within four minutes of the restart and, not surprisingly, found it next to impossible to claw their way back. Not that they gave up the ghost at any juncture; Matt Dawson's pugnacious score 17 minutes from time closed the gap to a single score and but for some half-baked attacking down the left touchline the visitors would surely have made the Springboks sweat even harder for their much- needed victory.
"At 23-16 we were in with a chance of completing the whitewash," said Johnson. "We had the ball on the South African 22 and failed to take the chance when it arose. It was incredibly delicately balanced at that stage, to the extent that whoever scored next would almost certainly go on to win the match. A try to us and we would have been right in it, one to them and the game was gone. Unfortunately, it went against us."
McGeechan had promised a more expansive approach after the backs-to-the- wall epics in Cape Town and Durban and he was as good as his word. The Lions missed Gregor Townsend's uniquely experimental approach to broken- field rugby and once Tony Underwood had departed early with a pulled muscle at the top of his left thigh, they lacked genuine pace on the wings. The pack, however, was more "up" for the occasion than the average Himalayan sherpa and the way Smith and his front-row colleague Paul Wallace put themselves about in the open exchanges, there was always a possibility of an off-the-cuff raid or two.
"We wanted to participate in a high-quality game and come out winners," said McGeechan, "and to be quite honest, we didn't get what we deserved from the match. It was a superb game of rugby but we missed chances at crucial times and those slips were fundamental to the outcome. The defeat does not detract in any way from our achievement in winning the series - nothing can diminish that - but I must admit to a slight frustration at letting a potential clean sweep seep away."
In many ways, it was the most physically demanding, not to say brutal, match of the rubber. Jeremy Guscott, full of attacking ideas after some 180 minutes of relative quietude, broke a bone in his left forearm shortly before the break, while Dallaglio and Wainwright both attracted a livid collection of lacerations and abrasions for their efforts on the floor. Andre Venter's calculated stamp on Wainwright's shoulder might easily have resulted in dismissal had Wayne Erickson, the none-too-special referee from Australia, opted to clamp down as heavily on premeditated violence as on infringements of the ruck law.
For all that, the Boks were good value for their early lead after ripping into the Lions with passion and venom in the early stages. To begin with, they at last possessed a reliable goalkicker in the cultured shape of Jannie de Beer and two penalties inside seven minutes settled the Jo'burg nerves. When Johan Erasmus, hugely impressive on his Test debut, and Os du Randt spat out the Lions' fringe defence with formidable drives into the danger area, Percy Montgomery completed a run-in try to give the South Africans a 13-point cushion before battle had been truly joined.
Once again, Neil Jenkins came to the visitors' aid with three successful penalty shots before the break, but van der Westhuizen's slippery but distinctly avoidable strike on 44 minutes - hang your head in shame, Mr Dawson - nipped that particular recovery in the bud. The Northampton scrum- half showed enormous commitment in boshing his way over the Bokke line in the 63rd minute to close the gap to realistic proportions, but the Lions' inability to make the most of straightforward three-on-two overlaps would ultimately cost them the prize they were seeking.
Instead of finishing the stronger, as they had done in each of their previous dozen tour matches, the visitors surrendered their momentum in a hotch-potch of wrong options and loose passes and were duly punished when Pieter Rossouw hit Henry Honiball's precise midfield pass at the perfect angle and worked Andre Snyman, his fellow wing, over at the left corner. Rossouw then applied an accomplished coup de grace in the same spot to rub in the Boks' new-found superiority and condemn the Lions to aching pipe dreams of what might have been.
"We were so motivated today that it would not have mattered which players they sent out to face us," proclaimed a relieved van der Westhuizen. "It just frustrates me that I probably won't get another opportunity to face a British Isles touring side and win a measure of revenge."
It was not a sentiment likely to keep the tourists awake on their flight home this evening. Ellis Park remains impenetrable, but whenever the 1997 tour is remembered, Johnson and his pride will be lionised - or rather, Lionised - as Springbok conquerors. They will settle for that.
SOUTH AFRICA: R Bennett (Border); A Snyman (Northern Transvaal), P Montgomery (Western Province), D van Schalkwyk (Northern Transvaal), P Rossouw (Western Province); J de Beer (Free State), J van der Westhuizen (Northern Transvaal); P du Randt (Free State), J Dalton (Gauteng), D Theron (Griqualand West), H Strydom (Gauteng), K Otto (Northern Transvaal), A Venter (Free State), G Teichmann (Natal, capt), J Erasmus (Free State). Replacements: H Honiball (Natal) for Montgomery, 51; N Drotske (Free State) for Dalton, 66; J Swart (Western Province) for de Beer, 68; F van Heerden (Western Province) for Teichmann, 70; W Swanepoel (Free State) for van der Westhuizen, 80.
BRITISH ISLES: N Jenkins (Pontypridd and Wales); J Bentley (Newcastle and England), J Guscott (Bath and England), S Gibbs (Swansea and Wales), T Underwood (Newcastle and England); M Catt (Bath and England), M Dawson (Northampton and England); T Smith (Watsonians and Scotland), M Regan (Bristol and England), P Wallace (Saracens and Ireland), M Johnson (Leicester and England, capt), J Davidson (London Irish and Ireland), R Wainwright (Watsonians and Scotland), L Dallaglio (Wasps and England), N Back (Leicester and England). Replacements: T Stimpson (Newcastle and England) for Underwood, 28; A Bateman (Richmond and Wales) for Guscott, h/t; A Healey (Leicester and England) for Dawson, 79.
Referee: W Erickson (Australia).