Pride of Lions survives savagery

South Africa 28 British Isles 25
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Seven consecutive big-game failures and counting. It is the kind of record that earns football managers – and, increasingly in this flint-hearted professional era, head coaches of rugby teams – a torrent of abuse on supporters' websites, a meaningless vote of confidence from the chairman and a long spell of gardening leave without the option. Inevitably, this excruciatingly painful defeat by the Springboks in one of the more savage contests in living memory provoked much debate about the future of Lions touring, forcing the likes of Gerald Davies and Ian McGeechan on to the barricades in defence of the great love of their sporting lives.

"We've just seen some of the finest Test rugby ever," McGeechan said yesterday, the sharp edge of exasperation in his voice being the natural consequence of losing a contest of this magnitude to the final kick, "and people are asking whether the Lions are still of value? Ask the Springboks what the Lions mean. You don't get these kinds of Tests outside of the Lions tradition. This is as low as I've felt for a very long time; there's a deep sadness about being 2-0 down in this series when we don't deserve to be. But this game was among the best the Lions have ever played and I'm proud to have been a part of it. I can't think of a better advert for rugby in the northern hemisphere."

Davies, a significant contributor to the Lions' golden age of the 1970s and every bit as accomplished a tour manager as he was a wing, was equally firm in his opinion. "If there was such a thing as a Lions 'age', I believe we've gone some way towards recovering the spirit of it on this trip," he commented. Davies considered it a minimum requirement that the series should be decided this weekend in Johannesburg, and by that measurement, his party has fallen short. But there are times in rugby when a team can lose a Test yet claim victory in the battle for hearts and minds, and there is something of that at work here.

God, it was hard at Loftus Versfeld. Five Lions finished up in hospital, two of them seriously hurt, and the Lions' medical room looked more like a clearing station yesterday. "Bumps and bruises? Too many to count," said the senior doctor, James Robson. For his part, one of the touch judges, Bryce Lawrence of New Zealand, expressed the opinion that this match was "twice as intense" as anything he had previously witnessed.

Lawrence has played quite a part in this series. While controlling the opening Test in Durban, he penalised the Lions so heavily at the scrum that the Springboks opened up a winning lead before half-time. This time, he spotted the gung-ho South African flanker Schalk Burger scratching away at the left eye of the Irish wing Luke Fitzgerald at the very first ruck, yet declined to recommend to the French referee Christophe Berdos that Burger be banished permanently, rather than serve a measly 10-minute penance in the sin bin. This week at Ellis Park he will perform the "television match official" duties. No Lion has yet been heard shouting "yippee" at the prospect.

Mike Phillips, the Lions scrum-half, is certainly among those not turning somersaults of joy. He described Burger's assault on Fitzgerald as "disgusting", adding: "You can't go around doing things like that. It should have been a straight red card and it's not good enough. Luke said he had to pull Burger's hand off his eyes. When you're a professional and you reach the pinnacle of your sport, things like that really bug you. A player can be hard and tough on the pitch and stay within the rules. Here, there was a lot of stuff going on."

Well as the Springboks played in the final quarter to overturn a 19-8 deficit – the tries scored by Bryan Habana and Jaque Fourie in the 71st and 84th minutes were absolute belters, as was the winning long-range penalty from the cucumber-cool Morne Steyn – there can be little doubt that, with Burger off the field for virtually the whole game, the Lions would have won. Similarly, they would probably have prevailed had the match not gone to uncontested scrums early in the second half, the direct result of a deeply questionable challenge on Adam Jones, the tight-head prop from Abercrave, by Bakkies Botha, that renowned grand master of the dark arts and the Springboks' enforcer-in-chief.

Until that point, the Lions had scrummaged brilliantly. Tendai Mtawarira, the Zimbabwean-born prop who played the decisive hand in Durban by giving Phil Vickery the most torrid 40-odd minutes of his long career, found Jones infinitely more difficult to handle; indeed, the Springbok set piece was a mess from the start and very nearly collapsed completely when the Lions, five metres away from their own line, drove the South African front row up into the stratosphere and were awarded a penalty for their efforts.

Jones' departure changed everything. As Simon Shaw, a Lions Test debutant at 35 and the most impressive performer on view by a ridiculous distance, explained: "We were taking so much out of the Boks at the set piece, they were struggling to put their game together elsewhere. It was a huge turning point." Once the set-piece contest ended, the South Africans were able to conserve energy at each stoppage rather than dig deep within themselves simply to stay in the contest. Crucially, Pierre Spies was able to launch his running game from the base of a stable platform, and it was the lightning-quick No 8 who did most to tilt the balance away from the tourists in the later stages.

If the Lions' try-scoring chances were few and far between after Rob Kearney's early strike during Burger's absence – Jamie Roberts might have scored had Gethin Jenkins not delayed a pass by a crucial split second; Spies stopped Brian O'Driscoll in his tracks after good work down the left by Fitzgerald – the accurate goal-kicking of Stephen Jones kept them ahead of the game until the very last knockings, when the calamities and catastrophes came with a rush.

O'Driscoll had already departed after a car-crash collision with Danie Rossouw – who, despite being more than three stones heavier than the Irishman, was the one transported from the field on a buggy – when Roberts, his midfield partner, was forced to give best to a wrist injury. Suddenly, the Boks were all over the Lions like a rash, putting width on the ball and smashing into rucks in areas of the field they had barely visited previously. From one of these attacks, the powerful Fourie ran through Ronan O'Gara down the right, took the tackle of Phillips tight to the touchline and stretched over for a finish of the highest quality. It took three minutes for the try to be awarded and, from the Lions' perspective, there will always be a smidgen of doubt as to its legality. But the Boks were ahead for the first time, and on the brink of victory.

Another high-pressure penalty from Stephen Jones squared it at 25-all, but O'Gara's clumsy aerial challenge on Fourie du Preez presented Steyn, playing on his home ground, with one last head-on shot from 54 metres. At sea level, it would have been terribly testing. At altitude it was kickable, and kick it he did. Heartbreaking? You could say.

As the magnificent Shaw put it afterwards: "I'm proud of what I did out there to win the man-of-the-match award, but I'd rather have been taken off at half-time for playing badly and seen us win the game." Sadly, he was not given the choice.

Scorers: South Africa: Tries Pietersen, Habana, Fourie; Conversions M Steyn 2; Penalties M Steyn 2, F Steyn. British Isles: Try Kearney; Conversion S Jones; Penalties S Jones 5; Drop goal Jones.

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), S Burger (Western Province), J Smith (Free State), P Spies (Blue Bulls). Replacements: J Fourie (Golden Lions) for De Villiers, 60; A Bekker (Western Province) for Botha, 64; D Rossouw (Blue Bulls) for Smith, 64; M Steyn (Blue Bulls) for Pienaar, 66; H Brussow (Free State) for Rossouw, 69.

British Isles: R Kearney (Leinster and Ireland); T Bowe (Ospreys and Ireland), B O'Driscoll (Leinster and Ireland), J Roberts (Cardiff Blues and Wales), L Fitzgerald (Leinster and Ireland); S Jones (Scarlets and Wales), M Phillips (Ospreys and Wales); G Jenkins (Cardiff Blues and Wales), M Rees (Scarlets and Wales), A Jones (Ospreys and Wales), S Shaw (Wasps and England), P O'Connell (Munster and Ireland, capt), T Croft (Leicester and England), D Wallace (Munster and Ireland), J Heaslip (Leinster and Ireland). Replacements: A Sheridan (Sale and England) for Jenkins, 25-34 and 45; A W Jones (Ospreys and Wales) for A Jones 47; S Williams (Ospreys and Wales) for O'Driscoll, 72; R O'Gara (Munster and Ireland) for Roberts, 76; M Williams (Cardiff Blues and Wales) for Wallace, 76.

Referee: C Berdos (France).

Epic encounters: Five other outstanding Lions Test matches

Saturday's Test stands comparison with the greatest Lions matches of all time. Chris Hewett chooses five other classics

*SOUTH AFRICA 26 BRITISH ISLES 12 (Johannesburg, 1938): Led by the Ulster prop Sammy Walker, the '38ers found themselves up against Danie Craven's all-stars, one of the most complete teams in rugby history. They played the bravest of hands, taking the lead three times through the prodigious kicking of Vivian Jenkins before conceding four brilliant tries.

*South Africa 22 British Isles 23 (Johannesburg 1955): Regarded as one of the all-time classics. The Lions, playing in front of a world record crowd of 90,000, outscored the Boks by five tries to four but would have lost had Jack van der Schyff converted Theunis Briers' long-range strike with the last kick of the match.

*New Zealand 14 British Isles 14 (Auckland 1971): Two-one up in the series, the Lions needed only a draw to record a first triumph over the All Blacks. In a brutally hard game they made it by the skin of their teeth, J P R Williams sinking a drop goal from the back of beyond to guide the tourists home.

*South Africa 15 British Isles 18 (Durban 1997): The rearguard action to end them all. Ian McGeechan, coaching the Lions then as now, described it as "15-man rugby without the ball", and the Springboks did indeed score three unanswered tries. Jeremy Guscott clinched it for the tourists with a famous late drop goal (left).

*Australia 29 British Isles 23 (Sydney 2001): Crippled by injury, the Lions limped into the series decider and dug as deep into their dwindling reserves of energy as any team before or since. They split the tries two apiece, but Matthew Burke's goal-kicking and a late line-out steal from Justin Harrison earned the Wallabies a dramatic victory.