Gerry Thornley: Lions will have regrets as Springboks secure series victory

In practically every metric bar the final score the visitors were the superior team

British and Irish Lions’ fly-half Finn Russell dives over the top of South Africa’s  Cheslin Kolbe during the third Test at  Cape Town Stadium. Photograph: Phill magakoe/AFP via Getty Images

British and Irish Lions’ fly-half Finn Russell dives over the top of South Africa’s Cheslin Kolbe during the third Test at Cape Town Stadium. Photograph: Phill magakoe/AFP via Getty Images

 

South Africa 19 British & Irish Lions 16 (South Africa win the series 2-1)

Well, that was one that got away, and in vowing not to die wondering, the Lions will actually have plenty to wonder about.

Within moments of the full-time whistle, Maro Itoje, Alun Wyn Jones and Warren Gatland all lamented the calls that went against them.

Ultimately, as too many games have done for years, this game, and the series, was decided by three key interpretations by referee Mathieu Raynal at scrums and a breakdown.

For sure both sides could quibble with several decisions, and no doubt Rassie Erasmus would have done had the Springboks lost. Yet the Lions, despite playing most of the rugby and having 63 per cent of both the possession and the territory, have more legitimate reasons to question how they lost the penalty count 15-12.

In practically every other metric bar the final scoreline – passes, carries, line breaks, offloads, defenders beaten – the Lions were the superior team.

In that, though, the Lions also created the chances to have taken the officials’ decision-making out of the equation, and ultimately that will be their bigger lament.

Utterly transformed by Finn Russell’s unexpected arrival in the 11th minute, most obviously there was Liam Williams’s decision not to give Josh Adams a probable try-scoring pass when instead opting to sell a dummy – and Handré Pollard wasn’t buying.

Having earlier been rewarded for going to the corner to score their second try of the series with a catch-and-drive after eschewing three points, the Lions then did so again. But with another drive edging towards the Boks’ line Tom Curry detached himself and took out Siya Kolisi.

That was the match in many ways.

Had the Lions taken either of those chances they’d have moved 17-3 ahead before the half-hour mark. In that scenario the Lions could have opted for three-pointers when instead going to the corner before half time and in the 69th minute. The Boks, on the ropes, might have had to play catch-up rather than relying on their trusted defence, improving scrum and kicking game.

One chance

Instead they stayed within a score at all times and grasped their one chance off a fortunate ricochet, Lukhanyo Am’s alertness and footwork releasing Willie le Roux. He then released Cheslin Kolbe for a typically sharp finish when stepping Williams and fending Luke Cowan-Dickie, who went too high.

Kolbe was the real match-winner despite being in many ways the antithesis of a Springbok. From a humble background, he had to establish his brilliance in Toulouse after being considered too small in his native country. Indeed, in making so little use of hi, the Boks deserved to lose.

Instead the headlines will be reserved for the 37-year-old Morné Steyn in light of him kicking the penalty, 35 metres out and straight, 12 years on from his mammoth series-deciding penalty.

Yet his counterpart on the Lions’ bench contributed so much more to this game. Losing the unfortunate Dan Biggar after 10 minutes through a shin injury turned into a blessing for the Lions, such was Russell’s game-changing effect.

Prior to his premature arrival, in ominous echoes of the second Test, the Lions’ carriers had been repelled with relative ease on the gainline.

But with Russell taking the ball to the line and using his array of passes, a kick pass and picking his moment to find the edge, the Lions were attacking off 10 rather than nine. Suddenly runners were coming on to the ball. The Lions simply looked a different team.

He also nailed his kicks to the corner and his four place kicks were akin to any world-class goalkicker, be it from the touchline or outside the 10-metre line, and this despite not being the first-choice kicker for either Racing 92 or Scotland.

High kick

This really should have been the day Russell’s performance offered a telling rebuke to his many detractors. Alas, his failure to gather a high kick did eventually lead to Courtney Lawes being penalised for not rolling away and that penalty kick for Steyn.

For sure Russell wasn’t perfect, but this defeat was certainly not down to him. Bravery is usually associated with putting bodies on the line physically but it comes in many forms, not least in having the courage to play like Russell did as a replacement on his Lions debut in his first game for a month and with a series on the line.

Hence, added to the “what ifs?” will be what might have been had Russell not slightly torn his Achilles at the start of the tour.

The performances of Bundee Aki and the magnificent Robbie Henshaw in harness again will surely make Warren Gatland and Gregor Townsend reflect on whether they should have reunited them from the start of the series..

Tadhg Furlong’s deft handling skills were finally brought into play to augment his powerful work in the set-pieces, and even Sam Warburton had to relent on his Taulupe Faletau campaign in acknowledging that Jack Conan had topped off his series with his best performance of all.

Through green-tinged glasses, there were sizeable crumbs there.

Of course, in the heel of the hunt the Lions scored just two tries in the series and both from lineout mauls and, as in the second Test, their “back-up” scrum was an Achilles heel.

Even so, one that got away.

SCORING SEQUENCE – 12 mins: Pollard pen 3-0; 17: Russell pen 3-3; 20: Owens try, Russell con 3-10; 36: Pollard pen 6-10; (half-time 6-10); 56: Kolbe try, Pollard con 13-10; 63: Russell pen 13-13; 67: Steyn pen 16-13; 75: Russell pen 16-16; 79: Steyn pen 19-16.

SOUTH AFRICA: Willie le Roux (Toyota Verblitz); Cheslin Kolbe (Toulouse), Lukhanyo Am (Cell C Sharks), Damian de Allende (Munster), Makazole Mapimpi (Cell C Sharks); Handré Pollard (Montpellier), Cobus Reinach (Montpellier); Steven Kitshoff (DHL Stormers), Bongi Mbonambi (DHL Stormers), Frans Malherbe (DHL Stormers); Eben Etzebeth (Toulon), Lood de Jager (Sale Sharks); Siya Kolisi (captain, Cell C Sharks), Lood de Jager (Sale Sharks), Franco Mostert (Honda Heat), Jasper Wiese (Leicester Tigers).

Replacements: Kwagga Smith (Yamaha Júbilo) for Mostert (13-21 mins) and for De Jager (53 mins), Malcolm Marx (Kubota Spears) for Mbonambi, Vincent Koch (Saracens) for Malherbe, Marco van Staden (Vodacom Bulls) all for Kolisi (all 56 mins), Trevor Nyakane (Vodacom Bulls) for Kitshoff (61 mins), Kolisi for Wiese (63 mins), Herschel Jantjies (DHL Stormers) for Reinach (64 mins), Morné Steyn (Vodacom Bulls) for Pollard (65 mins), Damian Willemse (DHL Stormers) for Le Roux (79 mins).

BRITISH AND IRISH LIONS: Liam Williams (Scarlets, Wales); Josh Adams (Cardiff, Wales), Robbie Henshaw (Leinster, Ireland), Bundee Aki (Connacht, Ireland), Duhan van der Merwe (Worcester Warriors, Scotland); Dan Biggar (Northampton Saints, Wales), Ali Price (Glasgow Warriors, Scotland); Wyn Jones (Scarlets, Wales), Ken Owens (Scarlets, Wales), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster, Ireland); Maro Itoje (Saracens, England), Alun Wyn Jones capt (Ospreys, Wales); Courtney Lawes (Northampton Saints, England), Tom Curry (Sale Sharks, England), Jack Conan (Leinster, Ireland).

Replacements: Finn Russell (Racing 92, Scotland) for Biggar (11 mins), Mako Vunipola (Saracens, England) for W Jones (44 mins), Luke Cowan-Dickie (Exeter Chiefs, England) for Owens (54 mins), Kyle Sinckler (Bristol Bears, England) for Furlong, Conor Murray (Munster, Ireland) for Price (both 59 mins), Adam Beard (Ospreys, Wales) for AW Jones, Sam Simmonds (Exeter Chiefs, England) for Conan (both 62 mins). Not used: Elliot Daly (Saracens, England).

Referee: Mathieu Raynal (France).

The British & Irish Lions

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