Lions left to regret letting the Beast out

South Africa 26 British Isles 21
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This time next week, the Lions may have reached a new and painful understanding of how the Springboks felt a dozen years ago. They may also discover that in rugby, to understand all is not necessarily to forgive all. The South Africans knew immediately why they lost their Test series with the British Isles in 1997 – the reasons were transparently clear to them even while they were in the process of losing it – yet they have beaten themselves up about that defeat on a daily basis ever since. Unless Ian McGeechan is extremely careful with his tactics and selection ahead of this Saturday's profoundly demanding meeting with the world champions in Pretoria, he will assuredly tread the same road of bitter regret.

In '97, the Boks played most of the rugby (some would say all of it) and outscored the Lions by nine tries to three. Yet by allowing themselves to be outmanoeuvred at the scrums, by squandering golden opportunities at important moments and by failing to kick their goals, they gave the tourists a foothold in the three-match contest that, according to the laws of rugby logic, should not have been available to them. The rest, as they say, is history. A piece of history these current South African players have sworn to avenge.

It seems the Lions are giving them all the help and support they need. Here in Durban last Saturday, the tourists played some wonderful stuff. Jamie Roberts and Brian O'Driscoll outperformed their opposite numbers so comprehensively – Jean de Villiers and Adrian Jacobs barely saw which way they went – that it was legitimate to ask whether the two centre pairings were participating in the same sporting activity. There was also a stunning contribution from Tom Croft, the young blind-side flanker from Leicester. Everyone knew about his pace, his athletic prowess, his work rate, his know-how. As a result of these events, he can also be regarded as a big-game player, a genuinely tough forward with a splinter of ice in his soul.

But the remarkable efforts of these three, supported strongly by the likes of Rob Kearney and Mike Phillips, failed to bear fruit because the Lions got it wrong at the set-piece and blew two scoring chances that simply cried out to be taken. Ugo Monye, the Harlequins wing, was responsible for the missed tries, one in each half, and while he gave credit afterwards to the Springboks' desperate defensive scrambling – De Villiers intervened to prevent the first five-pointer, Morne Steyn materialised from the back end of nowhere to stop the second – his failures damned him as something less than a top-class finisher. We know now why coaches pick him for his tackling.

The scrum was a more complex issue. The Lions could – surely should – have picked a stronger-scrummaging front row. Instead, they rejected the two most effective set-piece operators left in the party, Andrew Sheridan and Adam Jones, in favour of props who could be depended on to hit 30-plus rucks, make a dozen or more tackles and generally work their socks off in the loose. If Gethin Jenkins, the Welshman who started all three Lions Tests in New Zealand in 2005, just about survived, Phil Vickery, the Englishman who started all three in Australia in 2001, was reduced to his component parts and forced to make a harrowingly public exit four minutes into the second half, by which time the Boks were almost out of sight at 19-7.

Most of those 19 points were the direct consequence of Vickery's problems at the scrum, where the Zimbabwean loose head Tendai Mtawarira comfortably lived up to his long-held nickname of "Beast". In the early scrums, Mtawarira went after his opponent, popping Vickery out of the engagement and leaving him peering around at nothing in particular like a human periscope. Vickery's response was to hit on the angle and drive in towards Bismarck du Plessis, the aggressive Springbok hooker – an act of purest self-preservation that was immediately spotted and heavily penalised by the referee, Bryce Lawrence.

Afterwards, the Springbok head coach, Peter de Villiers, told how his side had worked on laying into the Lions at the scrum – a move unexpected by the tourists and one that changed the psychology of the entire contest. It is a classic tactic of winning rugby to attack the opposition at their perceived point of strength, thereby undermining their confidence: many of the most successful teams in the history of the sport, not least the Lions who won here under Willie John McBride in 1974, were masters of the art. These Boks would have found it far more difficult against Sheridan and Jones.

John Smit's opening try after four minutes had its foundations in a powerfully efficient South African scrum, and as Vickery's trials and tribulations against the "Beast" mounted, the scoreboard ticked over and over again with the regularity of a metronome. So pumped up was Mtawarira that once a set-piece was completed, he stampeded around the field making tackle after heavy tackle. It was a wonderful individual display, one that will be mentioned whenever great Springbok front-row performances are discussed.

Yet the tourists had their opportunities, even during those first horrible 40 minutes. They took one of them, O'Driscoll manufacturing a high-quality try for Croft with a trademark tearing-up of the South African defences, but Monye's failure to touch down in the left corner and David Wallace's lack of awareness when set free in the Springbok 22 proved costly. Shane Williams would certainly have done the business on the first occasion; Martyn Williams likewise on the second.

To their credit, the Lions were a different act after the break. If they were helped by the Springboks themselves – De Villiers' decision to withdraw the likes of Mtawarira, Smit, Bakkies Botha and Heinrich Brussow with a decent amount of time still left on the stopwatch smacked of arrogance – they also helped themselves. Both Jones and Matthew Rees, the substitute hooker, made a difference off the bench, although the former must have felt sick to the pit of his stomach when, seconds after his arrival, the Boks drove a line-out with such contemptuous ease that Brussow's try was a formality long before the Free State flanker completed it.

With the scrum sorted, the tourists were able to work their way through the phases, put their patterns in play and make some progress. Croft's second try was a beauty – inevitably, Roberts and O'Driscoll were the architects – while Phillips' quick-witted strike from a ruck close to the South African line pulled his side back to within a score. So panic-stricken were the Boks, they had to reintroduce Smit to the fray. "My message," said the captain, "was to get our hands on the ball and keep them there."

And O'Driscoll? What was his view of this extraordinary match? "I think we were a little afraid of ourselves in the first half," he commented. "Once we lost that fear, we found we were able to play rugby." Much of that rugby was superb. The fact that it was rendered futile by the sins and omissions that characterised the first-half performance will eat away at the tourists for the rest of this tour. If they do not win another game – a distinct possibility, it must be said – they will curse themselves for ever and a day.

Scorers: South Africa: Tries Smit, Brussow; Conversions Pienaar 2; Penalties Pienaar 3, F Steyn. British & Irish Lions: Tries Croft 2, Phillips; Conversions Jones 3.

South Africa: F Steyn (Kwazulu-Natal); J P Pietersen (Kwazulu-Natal), A Jacobs (Kwazulu-Natal), J De Villiers (Western Province), B Habana (Blue Bulls); R Pienaar (Kwazulu-Natal), F Du Preez (Blue Bulls); T Mtawarira (Kwazulu-Natal), B Du Plessis (Kwazulu-Natal), J Smit (Kwazulu-Natal, capt), J Botha (Blue Bulls), V Matfield (Blue Bulls), J Smith (Free State), H Brussow (Free State), P Spies (Blue Bulls). Replacements: D Rossouw (Blue Bulls) for Brussow, 53; J Fourie (Golden Lions) for De Villiers, 60; A Bekker (Western Province) for Botha, 60; D Carstens (Kwazulu Natal) for Mtawarira, 68; G Steenkamp (Blue Bulls) for Smit, 68; M Steyn (Blue Bulls) for Pienaar, 69; E Januarie (Western Province) for Du Preez, 73; Pienaar for Jacobs, 79; Smit for Carstens, 82.

British & Irish Lions: L Byrne (Ospreys and Wales); T Bowe (Ospreys and Ireland), B O'Driscoll (Leinster and Ireland), J Roberts (Cardiff Blues and Wales), U Monye (Harlequins and England); S Jones (Scarlets and Wales), M Phillips (Ospreys and Wales); G Jenkins (Cardiff Blues and Wales), L Mears (Bath and England), P Vickery (Wasps and England), A W Jones (Ospreys and Wales), P O'Connell (Munster and Ireland), T Croft (Leicester and England), D Wallace (Munster and Ireland), J Heaslip (Leinster and Ireland). Replacements: R Kearney (Leinster and Ireland) for Byrne, 40; A Jones (Ospreys and Wales) for Vickery, 44; M Rees (Scarlets and Wales) for Mears, 51; M Williams (Cardiff Blues) for Wallace, 70; D O'Callaghan (Munster and Ireland) for A W Jones, 73.

Referee: B Lawrence (New Zealand)