A dead series it may have been, but in a game electrifyingly alive it was the British and Irish Lions who stormed the most forbidding of all Springbok rugby citadels, equalling their biggest victory in South Africa – the result mirrored that achieved in Pretoria by Willie John McBride's great side of 1974 – and ensuring they would take something home with them from a tour that was never less than compelling and occasionally touched the heights.
The Springboks chose to wear white armbands emblazoned with the word "justice" – a show of support for the lock Bakkies Botha, suspended for the dangerous challenge in last week's second Test that left the Lions prop Adam Jones with a badly dislocated shoulder. It was also a public challenge to the legitimacy of the International Rugby Board's disciplinary machinery. Yet it was the Lions, so unfortunate to be 2-0 down going into this contest, who walked away with justice. Led by Paul O'Connell, they were nothing short of superb: energetic, imaginative and magnificently bloody-minded.
More than anything, it was the spine of the team that came up trumps: the full-back Rob Kearney, secure in defence and elusive on the counter; the fly-half Stephen Jones, a man mountain of common sense; the scrum-half Mike Phillips, full of commitment; the hooker Matthew Rees, one of the big improvers on this tour; and, most particularly, the No 8 Jamie Heaslip, who produced the performance of his career. It did not matter whether the Irishman was going forwards or backwards. He was outstanding.
If the Lions had been forced into changing half their team following the tempestuous match at Loftus Versfeld, the Springboks tinkered with two-thirds of theirs. As a result, there was a delicate psychology about the game: how would a South African pack shorn of their two enforcers, Botha and the hooker Bismarck du Plessis, balance out against a Lions midfield denied the services of Jamie Roberts and Brian O'Driscoll.
The Springboks missed their hard cases rather more than the tourists felt the absence of their stellar centres. From the start, the Lions asserted supremacy at the sharp end, scrummaging strongly and spending sufficient time on the front foot to allow Martyn Williams to unpick the defence thread by thread. The men in red always looked the more likely scorers, and after Stephen Jones and Morne Steyn swapped penalties in the first 11 minutes, it was Shane Williams, the twinkle-toed little wizard on the left wing, who struck the first telling blow.
Fourie du Preez, so reliable in Pretoria, fumbled a perfect line-out delivery from Victor Matfield on 25 minutes, letting Tommy Bowe and a pumped-up Heaslip hammer deep into Springbok territory. Heaslip made a real mess of Wynand Olivier and put Williams away. Frustratingly, Jones' conversion failed to happen, the ball toppling off its tee as he ran up.
Then, the Lions reached deep into their box of tricks and left the Ellis Park audience spellbound. Whipping turnover ball left through the willing Rees, the tourists set Riki Flutey away down the line with Shane Williams in close attendance. Flutey chipped Odwa Ndungane, hared after the ball and flicked it inside to the Welshman as Zane Kirchner, the Springboks' debutant full-back, sprinted across on the cover. Williams took the ball one-handed behind his back and, in a flash, disappeared into the wide blue yonder for another five-pointer. Jones converted this time and the Lions were 15-3 to the good.
Unfortunately, the Lions' style was cramped towards the end of the period. Simon Shaw was sent to the sin bin for dropping a knee into the back of Du Preez – it looked more clumsy than deliberate; a citing followed – before the tourists suffered another dose of last-kickitis: for the fourth half in succession they conceded points to the final shot of the session, this time to Steyn following a missed touch-finder from Kearney.
But there would be no denying the red-shirted hordes on this occasion. As the South Africans cranked up the temperature and laid siege to the Lions' line, 14 minutes after the interval, Ugo Monye plucked Olivier's pass to Kirchner out of the ether and sprinted 70 metres for the killer strike.
Penalties accounted for the rest of the scoring: one to Steyn, two to Jones, the last following a major dust-up starring Phillips and Heinrich Brussow, aided by what seemed a cast of thousands. As the fly-half from Llanelli chipped over that last little sand-iron of a kick, the smiles on the Lions' faces were a mile wide.
Man for man, by Hugh Godwin
15 Zane Kirchner 5/10
Blue Bull who was the only uncapped starter behind a three-quarter line changed entirely from the second Test. A zany game plan, you might think. Crucial tap tackle cut Tommy Bowe down early in second half. Bowe replied with last-ditch tackle when Kirchner was close to scoring. Francois Steyn came on for Jaque Fourie for blood in the first half and replaced Kirchner after 56 minutes. Ran hard with little result and attempted a trademark long dropped goal which missed.
14 Odwa Ndungane 6/10
Busy and willing but kept in check right to the final five minutes when – if he had been a shoe-size smaller – he'd have had a try. Not that it would have mattered.
13 Jaque Fourie 6/10
It cannot be much fun being a Springbok centre. This fellow has more to give than his half-backs choose to get out of him.
12 Wynand Olivier 5/10
Splattered by Jamie Heaslip for the first Lions try, and applied a really annoying hand to the head of Ross Ford after the whistle in a second-half exchange. Creatively? Hardly anything.
11 Jongi Nokwe 5/10
Given his birthplace, he could be nicknamed The Ngxalawe Express. Or maybe not. The 27-year-old's fourth Test was undistinguished and his only memorable sprint was to chase the Lions' Ugo Monye to the Boks' line. Replaced in the 65th minute by the No 8 – and one-time wing – Pierre Spies. Uh-huh.
10 Morne Steyn 5/10
A first Springbok start was Steyn's reward for a glorious 20-minute contribution to the second-Test win. Not so easy, Morne, being the man in possession? Steyn's head-first 'clearout' drew expletive-loaded remonstration from Rob Kearney – ruck defence could be a topic of rugby debate in months to come.
9 Fourie Du Preez 7/10
In a team of 10 changes, only Du Preez, Mtawarira, Smit, Matfield and Smith remained. The scrum-half was a beacon of excellence until forced off at half-time, probably with a big bruise courtesy of Simon Shaw's knee. Some-time fly-half Ruan Pienaar came on.
1 Tendai Mtawarira 5/10
Coach Peter de Villiers' midweek comments about rugby turning into ballet summoned nightmarish visions of the Beast in a tutu. Eek. Penalised in the second quarter for improper binding but the Lions got to grips with him too late, series-wise. Gurthro Steenkamp came on in last 10 minutes.
2 Chiliboy Ralepelle 5/10
Stepped in for Bismarck du Plessis, whose definition of a hooker's job is "to throw the ball in straight and scrummage hard". Ralepelle didn't, much. Du Plessis came on for the second half to show him how. Not much better, and bumped into Stephen Jones to concede the last, very cheap three Lions points.
3 John Smit 6/10
Joins John Eales and Martin Johnson as a captain who has won a World Cup final and a Lions series. Here, he ran out of gas, motivation and quality colleagues.
4 Johann Muller 5/10
The Sharks captain took over from the suspended Bakkies Botha. Possessed neither the leering smile nor the dynamic threat in the loose.
5 Victor Matfield 6/10
Matfield had a sticker on his scrumcap and his team-mates wore white armbands, all bearing the message "Justice", in support of Botha. Pathetic. In the line-out, normally, Matfield is the law. Not so dominant this time, though handily used as a decoy.
6 Heinrich Brussow 7/10
A rising star who has been given a rocket boost during this tour, he scrabbled expertly to snuff out a Lions drive under the Boks posts, four minutes into second half. Guilty of being a little too obvious with a judo throw of Mike Phillips in a late shoving match to give the Lions a match-sealing penalty, but there followed a warm and fuzzy moment when he and Phillips made up.
7 Juan Smith 6/10
Auditions weekly for the part of the Invisible Man but does less wrong than almost anyone else.
8 Ryan Kankowski 7/10
Did a few good things in the line-out. It was tough to step into Spies's boots at the base of the scrum and in open play but he managed a passable impression, even if he is actually a doppelganger for Jaque Fourie.
British & Irish Lions
15 Rob Kearney 7/10
Commanding at the back until the thought of a half-time cuppa addled him, and a failure to find touch with a penalty gave South Africa a counter-attack and three points.
14 Ugo Monye 7/10
Restored after twice missing the rugby equivalent of open goals in the first Test. Utterly joyous run-in of an interception try, his fifth score of the tour. Momentary palpitations when he celebrated with Nokwe in pursuit. Don't do that, Ugo!
13 Tommy Bowe 6/10
Good team man – shifted inside from the wing for this match and had plenty of attacking touches. Sadly, a few of them were duff ones. Did just enough to prevent Ndungane's late lunge for the line.
12 Riki Flutey 8/10
What is a New Zealander doing playing for the British and Irish Lions? Answer – yesterday anyway – was providing a skipping, snazzy alternative to the injured Jamie Roberts. An instinctive slapped-back pass gave Shane Williams his second try. Replaced by the scrum-half Harry Ellis after 55 minutes – the 29th Lion used in the three Tests – with Mike Phillips switched to centre.
11 Shane Williams 7/10
Eighth match out of a possible 10 on tour, the world player of last year finally brought his try ledger up to date with two in the first half. No one in the northern hemisphere has a better strike rate. Good on him.
10 Stephen Jones 7/10
Scored a Lions-record 20 points last week but suffered an early penalty miss here, and then the ball fell off his tee to spoil the conversion of the first try. However, his penalties after 70 and 72 minutes completed the job. The ups and downs of an honest competitor.
9 Mike Phillips 7/10
The merest impediment of Francois Steyn's attempted counter-attack on 70 minutes ignited an all-in pushing and shoving match which was more of a '49 and a half' than a '99' call. Wasn't quite the force of the previous Tests, but he kept at it.
1 Andrew Sheridan 7/10
Eighty minutes' worth of grunt and grind was a good effort. Reputation enhanced.
2 Matthew Rees 6/10
A good tackle on Ndungane out wide but was slightly shaky in the line-out until he got bashed at a ruck. Somehow staggered to another two rucks before being hauled off in the 37th minute. Ross Ford came on for a Lions Test debut.
3 Phil Vickery 7/10
Was the reality of the first Test that the coaches' selection of a lightweight pack had hung Vickery out to dry? If so, the Cornishman never moaned, returned yesterday and mostly held a firm anchor, give or take the odd penalty. John Hayes came on after 55 minutes.
4 Simon Shaw 6/10
Much-loved lock but, truth be told, a tendency to make crass errors at crucial moments explains why Shaw has not been more dominant in the past decade. A knee in the back of Du Preez was the latest example: he saw a yellow card after 36 minutes. Alun Wyn Jones came on after 67 minutes.
5 Paul O'Connell 8/10
Super-charged effort aimed at finishing the tour in credit. 'The forwards have given their best but not quite broken into folklore status,' said Gareth Edwards yesterday. Well put, but O'Connell's men avoided the dreaded 3-0 series score and their captain led well in this one. Focused and skilful.
6 Joe Worsley 6/10
Solid tackler but he struggled to shore up the post-tackle area. Replaced by Tom Croft for blood between the 30th and 34th minutes and permanently for the last 15.
7 Martyn William 8/10
There were not many chances to throw the ball around, but the 'Nugget' was pure gold on the ground and around the fringes. Made the most of his first and probably last Lions start after a backside-aching seven Tests on the bench, on three tours. Replaced by David Wallace after 76 minutes.
8 Jamie Heaslip 9/10
Shunted Olivier out of the way and slipped a lovely pass to Shane Williams for a try, followed soon by a balletic (there you go, Mr De Villiers) interception of an Ndungane pass and a clever smother of Kankowski to stem a driving maul. Kept on in the same vein and generally had a 'now or never' attitude which shone brightly in overcast Johannesburg.Reuse content