A stunning final minute penalty goal by Morne Steyn nailed the Lions and sealed the Test series in Pretoria.
But the Lions coaching management made only thinly disguised attempts to mask their belief that it was an incident in the opening minute of the match that was the crucial act in a brutal, rip-roaring Test match of fearsome physicality.
Springbok flanker Schalk Burger got away with only a yellow card for attacking the eyes of Lions wing Luke Fitzgerald straight from the kick off. Clearly, French referee Christophe Berdos bottled it. The Springboks should have played the entire Test with 14 men.
Lions coach Ian McGeechan admitted “We haven’t had the rub of the green in some of the decisions in both Tests, last week or this week. But whatever the reason, you have just got to accept it. It is not something that can be changed.
“But we could have been leaving here with two wins under our belts. Certainly, the two performances the players put in were very impressive.
“Nobody gave us a hope on this tour. But we have been incredibly competitive and have been winners in a lot of respects.”
McGeechan insisted there was no need for the Lions to cite Burger. Having heard the conversation between the referee and New Zealand touch judge Bryce Lawrence who is alleged to have said “It should be AT LEAST (my italics) a yellow card”, McGeechan was sure the citing officer would now act.
The Lions coach also bemoaned the injuries which proved so disruptive to the team. Both props departed, in the 46th minute, and later the Lions’ star centres Brian O’Driscoll and Jamie Roberts were also forced off. Crucially, this revealed the thin layer of real talent in this squad and the reserves were just not up to it, as Ronan O’Gara’s ill-starred late contribution showed.
“Until the injuries we were playing a lot of good rugby again” said McGeechan. “But it is disappointing we have given South Africa another opportunity they probably should not have had.”
Captain Paul O’Connell spoke of his quiet pride at the performance of his men. For 50 minutes, they had the world champions all over the place, wobbling like a blancmange. But they couldn’t quite finish it off. O’Connell called it “a big opportunity lost.
“I am very proud of the effort. It is a big challenge….the Lions coming together as a team. As teams around the world get more and more professional it gets harder for the Lions. It takes a lot of open mindedness and a lot of hard work to do that.
“We have been unlucky. We made a few mistakes at times but I am incredibly proud of the lads not just in the Test matches but in the effort getting us here.”
McGeechan echoed such sentiments, adding “I am very proud of the players, they don’t deserve to be 2-down in the Test series. There were some tremendous performances out there today.
“The injuries disrupted us in the second half but you have got to get on with that. You hope to keep a tempo and continuity but unfortunately we didn’t.”
It fell to Ronan O’Gara to be the fall guy in the crucial last few minutes. O’Gara badly missed Jaque Fourie as he smashed his way down the touchline to score the vital try. Then, in the final move of the game, O’Gara tried to run out of defence, hoisted a high kick and tackled Fourie du Preez while he was still in the air. Morne Steyn’s subsequent penalty killed the Lions stone dead.
O’Connell admitted “He is very disappointed as you can imagine. There is not a lot you can say. These are tough times for everyone.”
Springbok captain John Smit admitted “It was an uphill battle for us from the moment Schalk Burger was yellow carded. But it is quite ironic that in the 1997 Lions series here, a single kick was decisive in the Lions favour. This time, they lost to a single kick.
“The guys are delighted but it was a colossal match. I don’t think we have had a worse start to a Test match ever. There were some firm words spoken at half time but this was a proper Test match. We may have let the country down last week by not producing the best rugby but this week made up for that.”
Springbok coach Peter de Villiers said “After such a bad start to the game, it showed the character of this team that we could come back and win in the end. We never make life easy for ourselves.
“We played against the best of Europe and this was a brilliant Lions side. It was very tough out there and we must take our hats off to the boys for getting through that terrific challenge from the Lions. We have waited 12 years for this opportunity and to get this achievement after being world champions two years ago is wonderful. I am so glad we could stand up to the challenge.”
The Lions admitted they have “three or four” injuries which could be severe and might keep key men out of next Saturday’s final Test. They will assess them tomorrow.