Lions dream vanishes into thin air

 

South Africa 28 British and Irish Lions 25: The Lions will rarely have tasted a more bitter defeat. Brave beyond words, they fought the good fight, met the Springboks head on in a game that at times resembled a Pacific Islands derby - albeit of breathtaking quality and drama - but ultimately the effort took it’s toll and they were cruelly beaten by a penalty from fully 53.7 metres by the home replacement outhalf Morne Steyn with the last kick of the game.

Battered and bruised, they limp on to Johannesburg for a dead rubber with, one imagines, a catalogue of injuries and having come within the last play of a draw which would at least have kept hopes of saving the series alive.

Physically, they gave it their all in a ferociously full-on clash, but whether or not altitude or the more physical 5-2 Springboks bench had an effect, the Lions finished in a somewhat bloodied, patchwork state whereas the Boks looked like they could have kept on going. At one point past the hour mark, Tom Croft missed three tackles in a row, but the Lions had run out of options and whereas they had introduced the relatively lightweight Ronan O’Gara and Shane Williams, all the Boks were, as usual, mighty men.

In a strange way, the loss of both their magnificent props and uncontested scrums almost seemed to take the fizz out of the Lions, while the line-out buckled badly. They also seemed to stop making things happen and just wait for them to happen, perhaps because they just didn’t have it in their legs any more. The endgame will provide nightmares for O’Gara, who missed a tackle for the Boks third try and then gave away the decisive penalty.

Schalk Burger is almost certain to be ruled out of the third test as well, even though only yellow carded for blatantly eye gouging Luke Fitzgerald inside the first 30 seconds. The Boks played with 14 men for the first ten minutes, in which time the Lions scored ten points, but it should have been 80. The minimum suspension Burger can expect is a six or eight-week suspension, maybe more.

It set the tone for a feisty, bad-tempered match as the Lions stood up for the physical battle - making plenty of hard body tackles themselves and clearing out at the breakdown just as ferociously. They were also always ready for the fight – which they had to be given the Boks’ starting point is to bully the opposition.

The Lions were patient too, once going through 13 phases for a drop goal by Stephen Jones, and were prepared to out-shoot the Boks in the many bouts of aerial ping-pong, often profiting from them too thanks to the marked head-to-head superiority of Rob Kearney against the unconvincing Frans Steyn.

The changes all worked, even more than would have been hoped or expected, while collectively the Lions did a mountain of things so much better than a week ago in Cape Town. There was a seismic moment in the match nearing the end of the first quarter

when the Boks forced a five metre scrum and were shunted backwards, their frontrow popping up and being penalised. How the Lions’ fans roared, and tight-head Adam Jones has never been patted so much on his mop.

Kearney had a sensational first Test start, his confidence established by a strong, dancing counter-attacking run. His presence at the back must have had a Peter Schmeichel-like effect on all those in front as there were also innumerable, trademark leaping catches on the run interspersed with a superbly taken try

Simon Shaw had a stormer, making his physical presence tell as the management would have wanted, but all around them were heroes, with David Wallace carrying and tackling strongly, Jamie Heaslip putting in some big hits and Gethin Jenkins starring in the all-Welsh front-row with his clearing-out and intelligent play all over the pitch.

Burger returned to do what he was picked for, namely stiffen the midfield, and though Jamie Roberts and Brian O’Driscoll again carried well, it was into a veritable forest of bodies. But aside from this sacrificial effort, they also probed dangerously throughout and this created space out wide.

The Boks started with one of their driving mauls but the effects of this were negated when Burger was caught eye-gouging Fitzgerald on the ground by touchjudge Bryce Williams, who was no more than seven or eight yards away. The ensuing yellow card should have been red.

In any event, Stephen Jones went up the line, Wallace took the line-out and when the Boks fringed, the Lions outhalf opened the scoring. Maximising their advantage, Tommy Bowe’s break led to Jenkins making inroads but he didn’t release Roberts.

Meantime the scraps started, Victor Matfield and Brian O’Driscoll going toe to toe after some needless shoving by the Boks’ lock and O’Driscoll clearly saying “bring it on, bring it on.” A chargedown by Wallace maintained the Lions’ pressure, and when Shaw ran hard up the middle to present quick ball, the halves moved the ball wide, Stephen Jones made a superb one-handed offload in the tackle by Adi Jacobs, it took Bryan Habana out as well.

Kearney was still faced with a two-on-two with Bowe outside him, but dummied and straightened through JP Pietersen and Frans Steyn brilliantly. Jones added the conversion.

Unfortunately, within five minutes, Fourie du Preez ran infield off a Juan Smith line-out take, drew Wallace and sent Pietsersen through the hole inside Fitzgerald to score. Ruan Pienaar hit the post with the conversion.

Mike Phillips, fiercely competitive as ever, and Wallace took the ball up the middle and when Bismarck du Plessis was offside Stephen Jones made it 13-5. Their scrum having denied the Boks, Steyn was wide from long range before the Lions went through 13 phases and Jones extended the lead to 16-5.

However, with the last kick of the half Steyn landed a penalty from inside his own half, although Pienaar twice missed chances to trim the lead further as the Boks began to find their rhythm in the third quarter.

Still, after Jones had made it 19-8 when John Smit was offside, it was the Boks who were obliged to made a raft of changes, but O’Driscoll welcomed Dannie Roussow into the game with a monster hit, and he was taken off on a mobile stretcher.

Even so, the Lions were already wilting after losing both props, meaning uncontested scrums. The introduction of a few Blue Bulls’ favourites energised the home crowd and team, and the tide turned when Christophe Berdos adjudged a Matthew Rees throw

marginally crooked and from the scrum the Boks worked another clever set-piece move bringing a wing through the middle, Bryan Habana this time taking a good, late line onto Morne Steyn’s pass amid a hint of obstruction on O’Driscoll.

When Roberts was penalised for not releasing, Morne Steyn reduced the lead to a point as the Welshman also hobbled off, leaving a makeshift midfield of Tommy Bowe and Stephen Jones outside Ronan O’Gara.

Although Jones restored the four-point lead, the Boks came up with one of their power plays, moving the ball from right to left and back as Jaque Fourie ploughed through O’Gara, already groggy from a previous tackle, and absorbed covering tackles by Bowe and Phillips to score after a three-minute referral to the TMO.

Morne Steyn landed the touchline conversion, before Andries Bekker’s high tackle on Shaw enabled Jones to kick a superb penalty in bringing the sides level with three minutes to play.

In the final act, O’Gara gambled on a counter kick to chase rather than continue the aerial ping-pong, and was penalised for running into the airborne du Preez. In a reprise of the first half ending, there was a sad inevitability about Morne Steyn landing the penalty from just inside his own half.

A cruel, cruel finale for the Lions.

Scoring sequence: 3 minsS Jones pen 0-3; 7 minsKearney try, S Jones con 0-10; 12 minsPietersen try 5-13; 35 minsS Jones drop goal 5-16; 40 (+ 1 min)Steyn pen 8-16; (half-time 8-16); 61 minsPienaar pen 8-19; 63 minsHabana try, M Steyn con 15-19; 68 minsM Steyn pen 18-19; 70 minsS Jones pen 18-22; 74 minsFourie try, M Steyn con 25-22; 77 minsS Jones pen 25-25; 80 (+1 min)M Steyn pen 28-25.

South Africa: F Steyn (Sharks); JP Pietersen (Sharks), A Jacobs (Sharks), J de Villiers (Stormers), B Habana (Bulls); R Pienaar (Sharks), F du Preez (Bulls); T Mtawarira (Sharks), B du Plessis (Sharks), J Smit (Sharks, capt), B Botha (Bulls), V Matfield (Bulls), S Burger (Stormers), J Smith (Cheetahs), P Spies (Bulls).

Replacements: H Brussow (Cheetahs) for Rossouw (62 mins), D Rossouw (Bulls) for Smith (59 mins), A Bekker (Stormers) for Botha (59 mins), J Fourie (Lions) for de Villiers (56 mins), M Steyn (Bulls) for Pienaar (61 mins). Not used: C Ralapelle (Blues), D Carstens (Sharks)

Sin binned: Burger (1-11 mins),

Lions: R Kearney (Leinster/Ireland) ; T Bowe (Ospreys/Ireland), B O’Driscoll (Leinster/Ireland), J Roberts (Cardiff Blues/Wales), L Fitzgerald (Leinster/Ireland; S Jones (Scarlets/Wales), M Phillips (Ospreys/Wales); G Jenkins (Cardiff Blues/Wales), M Rees (Scarlets/Wales), A Jones (Ospreys/Wales), S Shaw (Wasps/England), P O’Connell (Munster/Ireland, capt), T Croft (Leicester/England), D Wallace (Munster/Ireland), J Heaslip (Leinster/Ireland).

Replacements: A Sheridan (Sale/England)for Jenkins (22-31 and 46 mins), A-W Jones (Ospreys/Wales) for A Jones (45 mins), S Williams (Ospreys/Wales) for O’Driscoll (65 mins), R O’Gara (Munster/Ireland) for Roberts (68 mins), M Williams (Cardiff Blues/Wales) for Wallace (69 mins). Not used: R Ford (Edinburgh/Scotland), H Ellis (Leicester/England),

Referee: Christophe Berdos (France)