The British and Irish Lions may have lost their series with South Africa and hit a low point in the process – yesterday's defeat was a record seventh successive loss in Tests and five of their players subsequently went to hospital – but they at least won hands down on the dignity front. While Peter de Villiers, the head coach of the Springboks, brushed aside the controversy over Schalk Burger's blatant gouging of Luke Fitzgerald with something approaching complete contempt, Ian McGeechan rose above his own disappointment with an impeccable display of diplomacy.
The Lions coach, who must have been seething at the decision of the match officials to send Burger to the sin-bin for 10 minutes rather than send him off, said only: "It's for the citing officer to sort out now." Burger was indeed cited, along with the lock Bakkies Botha, who has been charged with dangerous play at a ruck.
McGeechan continued: "We can't change the decision that was made on the field, just as we can't change the fact that we're 2-0 down in a Test series despite not deserving to be. We didn't get the rub of the green in some respects out there. We didn't get it in Durban last weekend, either. In the end, you have to judge how heavily you want it to weigh on you. Really, the only thing to do is take it on the chin."
De Villiers took a rather different approach. "I didn't think it was a card at all," he said, beggaring the collective belief of his audience. Asked whether he had actually seen the video evidence of Burger's crime, he said he had indeed done so and was far from convinced that the incident merited so much as a free-kick.
"If you sit down and dissect the whole game, you'll see a lot of yellow cards were missed," he continued, before adding, much to the astonishment of those within earshot: "For me, this is sport. This is what it's all about. This is great."
John Smit, the Springbok captain, steered well clear of the brouhaha over Burger, but he provided a vivid account of the game's ferocity, which left players on both sides nursing significant injuries. The Lions who went to hospital were Adam Jones (suspected dislocated shoulder, related to Botha's alleged charge at a ruck); Tommy Bowe (elbow); Jamie Roberts (wrist); Brian O'Driscoll (head) and Gethin Jenkins (facial injuries).
"It was colossal," Smit said. "The Lions took a lot of heart out of how poorly we'd played in the last 20 minutes in Durban and really came at us. The intensity was at an all-time high, but we've found ourselves in a lot of tough places and come through them. That experience helped us survive."
While Smit was praising his side's replacement outside-half, Morne Steyn, for his magisterial winning kick in the final seconds – "I take my hat off to him; a guy needs quite a temperament to handle that pressure in only his second Test match," he said – the Lions captain, the Ireland second row Paul O'Connell, was a picture of deflation, illuminated by a faint glow of pride.
"To bring a Lions side together is a big challenge: it takes a lot of open-mindedness and a lot of hard work," he said. "I think we succeeded in creating a team for ourselves and I'm incredibly proud of that."
And what of Ronan O'Gara, his fellow Munsterman who conceded the decisive penalty? How was he feeling?
"He's very disappointed of course, but we've all been there," O'Connell said. "Tough times for everyone, I'm afraid."Reuse content