O'Connell drinks in the Lions' salvation

South Africa 9 British & Irish Lions 28
Click to follow

If the Lions concept is dying, as some sages in the British Isles believe despite not having travelled here and exposed their five senses to the grandeur of a Test series more compelling than any played since the golden age of the 1970s, its demise is taking a very peculiar form. Can anything in rugby have been more alive than this final contest at the holiest of Springbok shrines, the least yielding of sporting fastnesses? If this is death, bring it on. It's far more fun than people make out.

"There should never, ever be a last Lions tour," pronounced John Smit, the World Cup-winning captain of the home side, a couple of hours after finding himself on the painful end of a record-equalling defeat by the four-nation collective – not to mention a severe personal battering at the scrum courtesy of Andrew Sheridan, one of the many tourists who saved their best to last. "The Lions have been as competitive as any team we've ever played." Given that Smit is in his ninth year as a Springbok front-rower and has rucked and mauled with some of the finest teams in the history of the game, including the England of Martin Johnson circa 2003, his remarks exposed the theory of red-shirted futility as so much poppycock.

It was Smit's opposite number, Paul O'Connell, who, at the tour-ending banquet in Johannesburg, spoke most movingly about the need to keep Lions touring at the heart of the union game. "A seven-week trip like this would be easier with your club or your national team because you'd be with people who have shared the highs and lows with you. Essentially, you'd be in a comfortable place.

"With the Lions, it's about compromise. It's about buying 100 per cent into what the thing is about, because if you don't, the difficulty of creating a side from scratch in such a short time is bound to be too great. I think we did build a team here, and while we didn't win the series – the Springboks have the laurels, and they deserve them – we leave here knowing that the Lions jersey is the best jersey any player can pull on."

According to the coaches, it was O'Connell who did most to summon this performance from a team distraught and bereft at the cruel nature of their defeat in Pretoria seven days previously. "A new template for winning Test matches: plenty of alcohol at the start of the week," said Ian McGeechan, the head coach, referring to the Irish lock's success in discovering something positive in the bottom of a glass and convincing his colleagues that if they took the trouble to look, they too might find inspiration among the dregs.

Whatever O'Connell drank to drown his sorrows, it worked wonders. He was far from alone in producing his most persuasive rugby of the tour – Shane Williams rediscovered the best of himself after a rough few months on the form front; Jamie Heaslip played the game of his life at No 8; Michael Phillips fought a battle royal with the Springbok back row, niggling them to distraction and finally pushing them over the edge; Sheridan laid on one of his occasional spectaculars for the edification of an Afrikaner-dominated audience who rather assumed it would be Smit doing the manhandling – but there was an on-field authority about the captain that had been less than obvious for much of his time here.

Aided and abetted by another powerful set-piece performance from his fellow tight forwards and a beautifully judged playmaking performance from the outside-half Stephen Jones, who drew on all his rich experience to ensure this would be the Lions' day, O'Connell was in the thick of it from the start. By contrast, the Springboks were off the pace. With one master of the dark arts, Bakkies Botha, out of the equation – his two-week suspension for a dangerous challenge on Adam Jones during the Pretoria Test prompted the South Africans to wear white armbands bearing the word "justice" – and another, Bismarck du Plessis, confined to the bench, they had no means, legal or otherwise, of undermining the Lions' superiority.

Aware that the Boks had beefed up their midfield by pairing Wynand Olivier and Jaque Fourie outside the Loftus Versfeld match-winner Morne Steyn, the tourists went wide and wider still in search of points. Williams had already scored a try, served up on a silver platter by the rampaging Heaslip, when, working in perfect harmony with Rob Kearney and Tommy Bowe, he found himself in space down the left touchline. Had his kick across the posts been foreseen and gathered by any of his colleagues, it would have been the miracle of the age – a score every bit as memorable as the French wing Philippe Saint-André's famous "try from nowhere" at Twickenham the best part of two decades ago.

If telepathy is not a gift given to all, Williams is among the chosen few. Five minutes after that wonderful attack, Riki Flutey chipped over Odwa Ndungane and hared after the ball as Zane Kirchner sprinted across field to snuff out the danger. With his powers of invention at full flood, the England centre reached high to flick it inside; yet Williams still needed all his skill to pick the ball one-handed off his hip before sailing into the distance. The try of the tour? Without a doubt. It was also the try that broke the Springbok resistance.

There was still a half and a bit of rugby to be played, but whatever befell the Lions in those 50-odd minutes – Simon Shaw's temporary banishment for an unfortunate challenge on Fourie du Preez, for which he was further punished yesterday with a meaningless two-match ban to be served in August; the heavy concussion suffered by the excellent Matthew Rees shortly before the interval; an occasional helping of grief from the booming boot of Steyn; a fierce scrap towards the end involving Phillips, Heinrich Brüssow and various attendants – it was as nothing to them. Ugo Monye's interception try midway through the third quarter took them so far out of sight, not even opponents as cussed as the Boks could hope to rein them in.

"We said at the start that this tour would be the equivalent of seven Six Nations internationals with three World Cup finals on top," McGeechan said yesterday, his eyes bleary from a night's carousing but his soul at peace. "After Pretoria, I was lower than I've ever been in my rugby life. Now, I feel very proud of what this group has achieved. Thanks to this performance, the Lions can carry a winning Test with them for the next four years, which should help with the legacy.

"I have my own ideas on how we should develop an integrated approach to Lions touring that gives the team the best possible chance of winning a series. It all comes down to certain people back home having a degree of empathy, and I would hope these last few weeks have helped in that respect."

It would be astonishing if this were not the case. The next series is scheduled for Australia in 2013 and there cannot be the slightest doubt that it will happen. Reports of the Lions' death have been greatly exaggerated.

South Africa: Penalties M Steyn 3. British & Irish Lions: Tries S Williams 2, Monye; Conversions S Jones 2; Penalties S Jones 3.

South Africa: Z Kirchner (Blue Bulls); O Ndungane (Kwazulu-Natal), J Fourie (Golden Lions), W Olivier (Blue Bulls), J Nokwe (Free State); M Steyn (Blue Bulls), F Du Preez (Blue Bulls); T Mtawarira (Kwazulu-Natal), C Ralepelle (Blue Bulls), J Smit (Kwazulu-Natal, capt), J Muller (Kwazulu-Natal), V Matfield (Blue Bulls), J Smith (Free State), H Brüssow (Free State), R Kankowski (Kwazulu-Natal). Replacements: F Steyn (Kwazulu-Natal) for Fourie 24-29 and for Kirchner 57; R Pienaar (Kwazulu-Natal) for Du Preez h-t; B Du Plessis (Kwazulu-Natal) for Ralepelle h-t; P Spies (Blue Bulls) for Nokwe 66; G Steenkamp (Blue Bulls) for Mtawarira 76; D Carstens (Kwazulu-Natal) for Smit 76-78.

British & Irish Lions: R Kearney (Leinster and Ireland); U Monye (Harlequins and England), T Bowe (Ospreys and Ireland), R Flutey (Wasps and England), S Williams (Ospreys and Wales); S Jones (Scarlets and Wales), M Phillips (Ospreys and Wales); A Sheridan (Sale and England), M Rees (Scarlets and Wales), P Vickery (Wasps and England), S Shaw (Wasps and England), P O'Connell (Munster and Ireland), J Worsley (Wasps and England), M Williams (Cardiff Blues and Wales), J Heaslip (Leinster and Ireland). Replacements: T Croft (Leicester and England) for Worsley 32-36 and 68; R Ford (Edinburgh and Scotland) for Rees 39; H Ellis (Leicester and England) for Flutey 55; J Hayes (Munster and Ireland) for Vickery 55; A-W Jones (Ospreys and Wales) for Shaw 70; D Wallace (Munster and Ireland) for M Williams 83.

Referee: S Dickinson (Australia).