South Africa 19 British & Irish Lions 16 (South Africa win the series 2-1)
The Lions had clearly made a vow that they wouldn’t die wondering, yet regrets, they’ll have a few. They had more of the game, played more rugby but also left more opportunities behind against a typically gritty and opportunistic South Africa.
Warren Gatland’s side opted on four occasions to turn hard-earned shots at goal into seven-pointers and while the policy yielded one of the latter and gave them an interval lead of 10-6, it ought really have been 17-6 or 20-6.
After a third quarter revival by the world champions, the Lions left more points behind in the final quarter as well. But the margins are tiny, and in playing more pragmatically while taking one chance out of nothing, the Boks emulated the class of 2007 and 2009 in backing up a World Cup with a series win over the Lions – and this time with little or no rugby in between.
Their maul and scrum came good at key moments the longer the game went on, Cheslin Kolbe did his Lionel Messi thing with his one chance and, in a remarkable storyline, the 37-year-old Morné Steyn was brought for his first international in six years to emulate his achievement of a dozen years ago in landing the series-clinching penalty.
Ultimately too, the Lions only scored two tries in three Tests, both from lineout drives.
As opposed to video rants aimed at officials beforehand, more often an early try, card or injury can completely change the narrative of a game. But no one could have scripted the enforced, 11th-minute introduction of Finn Russell. And sure enough, the effect was transformative.
Immediately the gifted and mercurial Scottish playmaker began taking the ball to the line, varying the point of attack with the variety of his short passing for the Lions to immediately start making inroads on the gainline for the first time since the first Test, and like at no point in the series to date.
Russell’s confidence was also helped by nailing his first two kicks and with the Lions also making use of Tadhg Furlong’s soft hands and looking to offload, suddenly the Boks’ blitz defence was asked a whole different set of questions.
His performance took the Lions to new places and created much of the momentum for the tourists to have every chance of a famous win. This defeat was in no way down to him.
The game began with Dan Biggar missed a 45-metre penalty before departing with a leg injury as Handré Pollard kicked the Boks ahead after winning the gainline on both sides of the ball.
Cue Russell and the whole tenor of the game changed. His first touch was to gather a high kick and feed Liam Williams for a good counter-carry. Soon after he rewarded a scrum penalty to make it 3-3.
Better still, after Jack Conan's carry and offload to Alun Wyn Jones launched the Lions from the restart, Russell's carry earned a penalty for a high tackle. The Lions went to the corner and mauled over brilliantly from a flat throw to Maro Itoje at the front for Ken Owens to claim the try. Russell also landed a fine conversion.
Williams diffused a Pollard bomb, the Lions used Furlong in going wide, where Duhan van der Merwe carried well, but after quick hands by Russell, Williams failed to send Josh Adams away.
The Lions turned down a straight three-pointer for Russell to nail a penalty into the corner, but Tom Curry undid another promising catch-and-drive when breaking off and obstructing in front of the maul.
Seven points went missing not once, but twice there.
The Boks became even more animated when winning a scrum penalty, which Pollard converted into three points.
Still the Lions left more chances behind, going to the corner where Eben Etzebeth beat Alun Wyn Jones to the throw before Siya Kolisi won a turnover penalty near his own posts.
The Lions were full value for their 10-6 lead at the end of a 52-minute first half, but even more than a week ago it should have been a bigger lead.
The Lions lost loosehead Wyn Jones and the Boks turned the screw but Pollard missed two penalties.
Whereupon, out of nothing, the Boks scored from long range. A second ricochet from an Ali Price box-kick broke to Lukhanyo Am, who sharply fed Willie le Roux on the blindside to break clear on an unguarded blindside. Unlike Williams in the first half, he expertly drew Conan and fed Kolbe, who stepped Williams and fended Luke Cowan-Dickie to complete a typically lethal finish.
No amount of replays could determine a Boks knock forward in the aerial skirmish. Pollard’s conversion made it 13-10 to the Boks.
Russell responded by pulling some more strings and when clattered from behind by Jasper Wiese he levelled things with a fine 45-metre penalty.
Both teams emptied their benches around the hour mark, which even meant Steyn replacing Pollard and he swiftly restored the Boks’ lead to reward a maul penalty.
Again Russell pulled the strings thrillingly before the Lions, with Conor Murray now captain as well as adding control after a hesitant, uncertain game by Price, went to the corner.
But the maul was sacked, Mako Vunipola was held up over the line and at the ensuing scrum referee Matthieu Reynal pinged Kyle Sinckler for dropping his knee to the ground. A tough call.
Robbie Henshaw’s stupendous carry from nothing up the middle and, critically, the speed of Curry and Sinckler, earned a penalty when Am came around offside. This time they opted for the shot and to Russell’s credit, he nailed the 40 metre-plus penalty to level things for a third time.
It came down to a final exchange of high balls in the middle third. Russell couldn't hold one and when the Boks' went through the phases, Reynal called on Courtney Lawes to roll away and just as he did so, pinged him. Another tough call.
Naturally, Steyn landed the 35-metre penalty.
Henshaw, magnificent again, reclaimed Russell’s restart, palming it to Itoje and a few phases later it seemed Kolisi might have contested the ball after the ruck had formed. Instead, Vunipola was penalised for going to ground at the final scrum.
With that, the Springboks had done it again, their only regret being that they had no supporters to share the achievement.
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).