Heartbreaking. The Lions travelled a mighty distance yesterday and very nearly reached their destination by squaring the series against the Springboks with one Test to play, but at the death they were driven off the road by two brilliant tries – the first from Bryan Habana, the second from his fellow World Cup winner Jaque Fourie – and the thunderous kicking of a new rugby titan in the making, the outside-half Morne Steyn.
The replacement No 10, playing in front of his home crowd, struck gold with the last kick of the match, booming over a penalty from four metres inside his own half. The ball sailed through the thin air of the highveld and did not for a single second look off-centre. As the touchjudges raised their flags, the Lions sank to their knees. For all their efforts, there was nowhere left to go.
Steyn's winning strike had a bitterly ironic air, for it came as a direct result of Lions indiscipline in the shape of a wildly ill-conceived charge on Fourie du Preez by Ronan O'Gara who, following up his own kick, clattered the Springbok half-back in the air. Thus, the tourists were punished in a way the South Africans had not been for their own foul play the best part of 100 minutes previously.
At the first ruck, Schalk Burger scratched at Luke Fitzgerald's left eye – a transgression of deadly sin proportions which was spotted by the New Zealand official Bryce Lawrence, who was running the line a few feet away. Inexplicably, the referee, Christophe Berdos, reached for a yellow card rather than a red and the flanker missed 10 minutes of the game, as opposed to all of it.
During their period of numerical advantage, the Lions made a serious mess of the Boks, establishing a 10-point lead inside nine minutes. Stephen Jones, who would not miss a kick all afternoon, set things in motion with a penalty resulting from Burger's violent act and then converted a fine try by the Irish full-back Rob Kearney, who capitalised on a driving run from Simon Shaw and an inspired pass out of the tackle by Jones to finish at the right corner.
Shaw, playing his first Lions Test at 35, galloped around like a 21-year-old; indeed, it would not be stretching a point to suggest that the grand old man produced the performance of his career. He scrummaged strongly – there was no repeat of the set-piece fragility that cost the Lions so dear in Durban – and more than held his own against the intimidating Bakkies Botha at the front of the line-out. What was more, his work in the loose set him many miles apart from any other tight forward on the field. If any single Lion had a right to feel bereft at losing this game and the series, it was Shaw.
Had Burger been sent off, the Lions would probably have been over the hills and far away long before the Boks found their attacking feet after the break. As it was, the tourists conceded a soft try to JP Pietersen off a line-out the moment Burger returned. Jones maintained much of the early lead by chipping over a second penalty and a short-range drop goal, but Frans Steyn, the full-back who kicks every bit as long as his namesake, kept the South Africans in touch with a three-pointer from his own half bang on the interval.
If the second half was disfigured by the onset of uncontested scrums – both the Lions' starting props, Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones, picked up game-ending injuries soon after the restart – there was no shortage of ferocity as the Boks increased the temperature. Pierre Spies, their freakishly athletic No 8, became ever more influential as the game moved towards its business end and with the Lions ahead 19-8 it was he who established the position from which Habana, electrifyingly fast, beat three Lions on a diagonal run to the posts, scoring despite Tommy Bowe's tackle.
Morne Steyn then hit the sweet spot from 50 metres after Spies and Heinrich Brussow had forced themselves on a Lions ruck and while Jones took his side back out to four points when Burger attempted to put the heat on Mike Phillips from an offside position, Fourie broke the game open three minutes into stoppage time with a wonderful finish down the right, smashing the unfortunate O'Gara out of the way and stretching over despite the attentions of Phillips and Bowe.
Jones levelled it with a wickedly difficult penalty from the left touchline, but Morne Steyn trumped him to end one of the great Test matches – and one of the most wounding defeats in Lions history.Reuse content