History dictates that if a touring team give the Springboks a 40-minute start, the chances of them making a little history of their own are so remote as to be practically invisible. Paul O'Connell and his Lions presented the Springboks with a valuable victory here in a sweltering Durban yesterday, imploding at the scrum and conceding a series of kickable penalties to the home side's twin marksmen, Ruan Pienaar and Francois Steyn, in the first half. As a result, they will have to win in the even more demanding conditions of Pretoria next week to keep the series alive.
The last 15 minutes of a compelling match were little short of sensational as Tom Croft, the outstanding flanker from Leicester, and Mike Phillips, the scrum-half from Cardiff, crossed for clean-cut tries. Had the tourists' first-half performance been even a quarter as good as their effort in the final quarter – and had Ugo Monye, the Harlequins wing, capitalised on two gilt-edged scoring opportunities instead of letting both slip away – the score would have read differently. But ifs and buts mean nothing at this level. Cold fact is all that matters.
Even so, the Boks did not feel quite so good about themselves at close of play as they felt after 46 minutes, when they scored the second of their tries and led 26-7. Peter de Villiers, their coach, made the classic error of withdrawing some of his best players too early, and as the Lions reeled in the South Africans with their late surge he had to send both Pienaar and the captain, John Smit, back into the thick of it. By the final whistle, they were hanging on for grim death.
There had been much debate in the build-up to the Test over the Lions' approach to the set-piece. Should they pick their heaviest scrummagers or go for the mobile option? They chose the latter, and were made to suffer for the decision as the Boks turned the psychology of the close-quarter contest on its head and dominated in the area they were thought to be most vulnerable.
Smit opened the scoring from the first of the Boks' ultra-solid scrums after just four minutes, making the line through Croft's tackle after strong work from Juan Smith in the Lions' 22.
Pienaar added the extras, and as the early exchanges unfolded, it was clear that Tendai Mtawarira, known in these parts as "Beast", was giving Phil Vickery a thorough working-over in the tight. Pienaar extended the lead from a scrum penalty, and when Croft was nabbed for a late hit on Fourie du Preez close to the touchline, Francois Steyn contributed a magisterial three-pointer from the best part of 50 metres.
Already the disorientated Lions were in dire need of some encouragement. Monye should have scored after being freed by Brian O'Driscoll down the left but Jean de Villiers did enough to prevent the grounding (Monye would later fumble on the line after Morne Steyn's last-ditch tackle). But the tourists were granted some succour as O'Connell grabbed himself a piece of loose Springbok line-out ball and O'Driscoll, working well with the excellent Jamie Roberts, ripped into the 22. The Irish centre had options on either hand but his decision to step J P Pietersen off his right foot and feed Croft was inspired. Croft did the necessary, Jones converting to cut the deficit by more than half.
That was the last of the good first-half news. In the remaining 14 minutes of the period, Pienaar slotted two more penalties: the first when Vickery was accused of dropping a scrum under pressure, the second when Lee Byrne's loose clearance kick gave Pietersen an easy run-back and Tommy Bowe was forced into a no-release on the floor.
When the Boks opened up after the restart to drive a maul all the way to the Lions' line with Heinrich Brussow at its epicentre, a comprehensive towelling looked likely. But Adam Jones, on for Vickery, and Matthew Rees, introduced at hooker for Lee Mears, made a significant impact in cramping the Boks' style at the scrum. Slowly, the mood of the game changed.
O'Driscoll, a 24-carat genius in picking routes through the heavy traffic, worked Croft over for his second try, and as the clock ticked over into stoppage time Phillips dummied from a ruck on the South African line and crossed untouched by human hand.
There were a good half-a-dozen minutes left, but there would be no more scoring. The Lions' sense of frustration was profound, but no one concedes the first 40 minutes to the Springboks and lives to tell the tale.
Man-for-man marking, by Hugh Goodwin
15 Francois Steyn 7/10
Did what Stephen Jones couldn't with a first-half penalty from the touchline on Kings Park's sunny side. Critics say Steyn is flaky; we say give us a "99" any week.
14 JP Pietersen 6/10
Itching to get going, he got ahead of a Fourie du Preez box kick to give the Lions a second-minute penalty. One of many Boks with recollections of watching the 1997 Lions in victory during his formative years. Adolescent pain assuaged yesterday, but the job is not complete yet.
13 Adrian Jacobs 7/10
Bounced around like a scrum-capped pinball, getting in the way of Lions runners, tackling and annoying. Odd as it may seem, given Jamie Roberts' gainline gains, Jacobs kept it from being worse for the Boks. Off after 74 minutes.
12 Jean De Villiers 6/10
Supreme defence with an arm under the ball to deny Ugo Monye a try. Pretty sharp for his first game in two months. Jaque Fourie gave him a well-earned rest after 57 minutes.
11 Bryan Habana 6/10
Continues to suffer by comparison with his own stellar performances in the World Cup winning year of 2007. Strained to sniff out an interception in the final quarter, but it never quite clicked for the cheetah-racer.
10 Ruan Pienaar 8/10
Simple early conversion emboldened the recently injured fly-half and he kicked out of hand with aplomb. Morne Steyn replaced him – for blood, initially, then permanently with Jacobs off – for a Test debut after 65 minutes. You know the kind: nice and easy with a 19-point lead? It was almost disastrous for the Boks – until the new man made a great tackle to stop Monye as he was about to cross the line.
9 Fourie du Preez 7/10
Gleefully made the running as his pack roughed the Lions up, though he could have done more around the fringes. Ricky Januarie on after 68 minutes, and helped the Lions with a knock-on.
1 Tendai Mtawarira 8/10
Launched Phil Vickery skywards on a Lions put-in to earn a penalty for a 10-0 Boks lead. His loyal fans' chanted "Beast" and it was the sound of music to South African ears. "How do you solve a problem like Mtawarira?" The Lions have a week to work it out. Gurthrö Steenkamp on for a nervy last 15 minutes.
2 Bismarck du Plessis 7/10
Nailed the final line-out, and was part of a dominant Bok scrum. Well, for an hour or so...
3 John Smit 7/10
Central to a rock-solid first scrum on own ball, the captain jogged around to crash over for his side's first try a couple of rucks later. Deon Carstens came on with Steenkamp after 65 minutes. If Carstens thought he'd have more fun than his heavy defeat at Lions' hands with the otherwise Springbok-free Sharks, he reckoned without the fast-finishing tourists. Got hurt, and Smit returned.
4 Bakkies Botha 6/10
Different to Victor Matfield and therefore complementary: Lions, take note. He and Big Vic have dozens of Tests together and countless victims in line-out, ruck and – again now – maul. Botha's never-say-die lunge helped deny Mike Phillips a crucial try. Andries Bekker on after 57 minutes to rough Tommy Bowe up a bit and plug a gap probed by Brian O'Driscoll.
5 Victor Matfield 7/10
An emperor with Spaghetti Western looks. Began the second half happily peeling around a 20-metre rolling maul. That became a penalty which begat a line-out which brought another maul, all presided over by Matfield. Just like the old pre-experimental law days of, er, about a year ago. Victor victorious.
6 heinrich brussow 7/10
The only starter to have faced the tourists in their warm-up matches, so the Lions were forewarned but disarmed as the Bok tore around the fringes of the tourists' splintered scrum. Danie Rossouw on after 52 minutes. A World Cup winning replacement? Yup.
7 Juan Smith 7/10
Nuts and bolts stuff from a quality blindside. As Ian McGeechan had told his Lions: "Games like these don't come around very often". Smith must have eavesdropped.
8 Pierre Spies 7/10
Can do anything including nodding the ball on with a decent centre-half header. A series of gainline bursts from the base kept the Lions honest and agonised.
15 Lee Byrne 6/10
With a clear commitment to counter-attack Byrne ran and ran, then went off, limping, after 38 minutes. Replacement Rob Kearney occasionally kicked where Byrne had run, and caught a high ball with assurance which may be needed next week.
14 Tommy Bowe 5/10
Here's an idea. You're in your 22, retreating, and Bryan Habana is bearing down on you. Pass? Kick? Nope, try the dummy and swivel – Habana tackled, Pienaar kicked the penalty for holding on: 19-7. Finger-tipped fumble of an O'Driscoll kick was nearly a try. See Mike Phillips, too.
13 Brian O'Driscoll 7/10
Fixed Steyn and Pietersen as if in slow motion before feeding Tom Croft for the Lions' first try. Carried on that form to keep the Boks guessing. Top quality and anyone who says the Lions don't need him is mad.
12 Jamie Roberts 8/10
Extraordinary physical effort, and not all crash-ball either. The man has a step too. As a medical student he can identify which bits of his body are aching this morning, which must be all of them. Cruel on him to be the one isolated as Lions' last attack went west.
11 Ugo Monye 5/10
Tasty hand-off of Habana in a second-half move but four tries in three previous Lions starts counted for zilch when De Villiers stopped him scoring, early, and a pair of Steyns denied him, late. Oh, those ugly Steyns. The name is pronounced "You-go Mon-yay". Not much chance to say "yay" yesterday.
10 Stephen Jones 6/10
Had a think before going for goal from the left touchline. Missed. A nicer looking chance followed after 15 minutes. Missed. Thus the worry over the lack of a top quality goal-kicker but Jones popped passes off again and again and his centres looked good.
9 Mike Phillips 7/10
Stretched every muscle to attempt to dot down a much-needed try after 49 minutes. Botha jogged his arm and the ball bounced away. The tight margins of top Test rugby. Burst over with five minutes left for the third Lions try. Tenacious. Rapacious.
1 Gethin Jenkins 6/10
Tackle on Habana set up Lions' first points. The stats are bound to show his industry but the set-piece was a problem.
2 Lee Mears 5/10
First two line-out throws nicked by Boks, with adrenaline spoiling his aim. Replaced after 49 minutes by Matthew Rees who cost Lions an attacking position with a swinging arm. Didn't even connect properly. Damn.
3 Phil Vickery 5/10
A great last 12 months in the prop's autumn years fell about his ears in the Durban midwinter. Up, down and, heinously for a tight head, backwards at early scrums. "You're falling into the tunnel," the referee Bryce Lawrence told him just before the half-time whistle. Into the abyss more like. Adam Jones took over in the 45th minute. He had to.
4 Alun Wyn Jones 5/10
Threatened with the sin-bin for lifting an opponent's leg in the maul in the second half. And the price of Jones's lighter-weight second-row partnership with Paul O'Connell was to leave the front row up an Indian Ocean creek with a broken paddle. Replaced by Donncha O'Callaghan in the 70th minute.
5 Paul O'Connell 6/10
Played a brief captain's knock in miniature with a sharp snaffling of the ball at a stray Springbok line-out to set the move going for Tom Croft's try. Kept at it, of course.
6 Tom Croft 7/10
Desperate shoulder-charge on Fourie du Preez summed up the Lions' opening quarter from hell. But it soon got better for the accidental tourist not picked by Ian McGeechan in the original party. Instinctive support to score the Lions' first try, then a legal and very lovely tackle on Du Preez and a second try on O'Driscoll's shoulder – again.
7 David Wallace 6/10
Linked for his life but suffered a rover's woes behind a struggling set-piece. Martyn Williams on for him after 66 minutes, and there was the suspicion that the Welshman was the missing link in the Lions' expansive game-plan.
8 Jamie Heaslip 6/10
Lived a nightmare at the rear of a retreating scrum, but the Leinster man never stopped trying to struggle free.