South Africa 17 British & Irish Lions 22
Trailing 12-3 at the break, the Springboks had the Lions exactly where they wanted them, but as one suspected might be the case the World champions again wilted as Alun Wyn Jones, Lazurus turned Superman, lasted the full 80 in leading the tourists to a pivotal first Test win.
The Sprinboks’ Covid-disrupted preparation must have taken a toll.
It wasn't beautiful, and the Lions rode their luck – not least in seeing two Boks tries disallowed, one of which by the South African TMO Marius Jonker was marginal to say the least.
But their game management, kicking game, lineout maul and discipline (the penalty count was 14-8 and the officiating was slick and clear) all improved significantly after the break and their superior fitness levels also saw them through, outscoring the Boks 19-5 in the second period.
No one drew the lines in the sand more decisively than the towering Mario Itoje, who confronted the Boks all game, never took a backward step on either side of the ball, marshalled the lineouts and won about four turnovers. As long as he was on the pitch the Lions had a chance.
Take a bow Warren Gatland for getting it right yet again, as this was a classic Kiwi-like approach – take the opposition on at their own game. The Lions ultimately out-bullied the bullies, especially through their maul and, for the most part, in the kicking and aerial games, while the scrum stood firm ina titanic duel.
It says everything about Tadhg Furlong's unwaveringly forceful game that he was kept on for 67 minutes, and for Jack Conan, all pace and power as well as the nitty gritty close-in work, and Robbie Henshaw that they played the full 80.
Courtney Lawes grew into the game hugely, Dan Biggar overcame one miss to provide a cool hand on the tiller, Duhan van der Mere more than justified his selection and Anthony Watson was always strong on the ball.
As was wholly anticipated, there was plenty of blood and thunder from the off, and kicking _–seven from hand in the first four minutes, five apiece in the first six as both teams quickly and regularly went to the air.
The Lions did so through Biggar from inside the 10-metre line at their first attacking lineout, and Cheslin Kolbe couldn't deal with it, but Tom Curry was pinged for being in advance of the ball.
The Lions did well in the air initially, Van der Merwe making one fine take and the lively Curry tackling Handré Pollard into touch from an Ali Price box kick (some of which were way too short), whereupon Lukhanyo Am shot out of the line and made a thunderous hit on Elliot Daly.
Curry was a little unlucky to be penalised when held in at a ruck for Pollard to open the scoring, less so when needlessly putting his shoulder into Faf de Klerk late for Pollard to make it 6-0.
After Biggar opened the Lions' account they were indebted to Itoje for one his three first-quarter turnovers after Siya Kolisi charged off a catch-and-drive to within five metres of the line.
The Lions were very competitive at the breakdown, but Daly conceding his second penalty for Pollard to make it 9-3 and then 12-3 after Henshaw was penalized for holding on. That said, Stuart Hogg’s pass may as well have come with a red cross on it.
A strong counter-shove by Furlong on Ox Nché, who was having a good game, ought to have seen Biggar bring it back to a one-score game but he missed with a straightish 40-metre penalty. Showing his mental strength, he quickly put it aside.
Daly was short with a penalty from 55 metres before Henshaw made the first clean break of the half but, carrying the ball one-handed, had it knocked from his grasp by Willie le Roux’s recovering tackle.
The Boks' brains trust then brought on their entire frontrow for the second-half restart. But a good chase by Curry and Van der Merwe availed of confusion at the back between Le Roux and Kwagga Smith and earned a penalty into the Boks' half.
After Eben Etzebeth’s high hit on Henshaw, Jones opted for the corner rather than a routine three-pointer. From a fine take by Lawes, the pack drove remorselessly forward for Luke Cowan-Dickie to just about reach the whitewash. Biggar converted.
Then the supreme irony.
Damian De Allende latched onto a loose tap back by Daly from Le Roux's sliced crosskick to feed Makazole Mapimpi, and he chipped ahead for Le Roux to finish. But although Nic Berry awarded a try onfield Jonker, whose appointment had so angered Gatland, decreed Le Roux was fractionally in front of the ball.
It certainly wasn’t a hometown call.
But, almost immediately, Pieter Steph du Toit retrieved a loose pass from Pollard inside his own 10-metre line, turned and left Watson, Price and Daly for dead. Again Mapimpi weighted his wicked chip perfectly. Replays showed Du Toit missed the ball with his hand and though Hogg held up Mapimpi, De Klerk was on hand to score.
Of some immediate comfort for the Lions was that Pollard missed the conversion and Biggar swiftly nailed two penalties. The Boks were struggling, both under the high ball and in keeping their discipline whenever the Lions took them through phases.
Lawes was now on the charge, Biggar was finding the edges and the Lions’ lineout maul was imposing itself, the Boks bringing it down for Biggar to inch them ahead for the first time.
The Lions had a double dose of luck when Hamish Watson escaped a card for a tip tackle on Le Roux, and when Pollard missed the penalty before he wearily departed.
The game was on a knife edge, as the Boks were playing for penalties. Conor Murray, a significant improvement, and Owen Farrell, less so, were introduced, with Henshaw shifting across to '13', where he made a good defensive read and the Lions won a penalty at the ensuing scrum.
The game seemed to twist once more as the Lions shifted the ball like a hot potato after Liam Williams failed to gather a De Klerk box kick, eventually leading to De Allende seemingly pouncing for a try. But replays showed that Kolbe had knocked the ball forward in the air initially.
Murray calmed things down, palpably, pinging the Boks with a couple of box kicks they couldn’t cope with before the lineout maul earned another penalty. With Biggar off, from 45 metres-plus and 15 metres in from the right touchline, Farrell bisected the posts. You knew he would.
One huge final defensive set, featuring a couple of hits by Itoje, and one final rip and turnover, again by the magnificent Itoje, and the Lions were one-up.
There’ll be some backlash, for sure, but the Boks have been wounded. The Lions, by contrast, will extract huge confidence from this and the body language of all the squad at pitchside augured well.
They’ve given themselves a great chance of winning the series now.
SCORING SEQUENCE – 14 mins: Pollard pen 3-0; 18: Pollard pen 6-0; 20: Biggar pen 6-3; 27: Pollard pen 9-3; 31: Pollard pen 12-3; (half-time 12-3); 44: Cowan-Dickie try, Biggar con 12-10; 50: De Klerk try 17-10; 50: Biggar pen 17-13; 56: Biggar pen 17-16; 63: Biggar pen 17-19; 79: Biggar pen 17-22.
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), Faf de Klerk (Sale Sharks); Ox Nché (Cell C Sharks), Bongi Mbonambi (DHL Stormers), Trevor Nyakane (Vodacom Bulls); Eben Etzebeth (Toulon), Franco Mostert (Honda Heat); Siya Kolisi (Cell C Sharks, capt), Pieter-Steph du Toit (DHL Stormers), Kwagga Smith (Yamaha Júbilo).
Replacements: Malcolm Marx (Kubota Spears) for Mbonambi, Steven Kitshoff (DHL Stormers) for Nché, Frans Malherbe (DHL Stormers) for Nyakane (all half-time), Lood de Jager (Sale Sharks) for Mostert, Rynhardt Elstadt (Toulouse) for Smith (both 63 mins), Damian Willemse (DHL Stormers) for Le Roux (67 mins), Elton Jantjies (Pau) for Pollard (70 mins), Herschel Jantjies (DHL Stormers) for de Klerk (76 mins).
BRITISH & IRISH LIONS: Stuart Hogg (Exeter Chiefs, Scotland); Anthony Watson (Bath Rugby, England), Elliot Daly (Saracens, England), Robbie Henshaw (Leinster Rugby, Ireland), Duhan van der Merwe (Worcester Warriors, Scotland); Dan Biggar (Northampton Saints, Wales), Ali Price (Glasgow Warriors, Scotland); Rory Sutherland (Worcester Warriors, Scotland), Luke Cowan-Dickie (Exeter Chiefs, England), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster Rugby, Ireland); Maro Itoje (Saracens, England), Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys, Wales, capt); Courtney Lawes (Northampton Saints, England), Tom Curry (Sale Sharks, England), Jack Conan (Leinster Rugby, Ireland).
Replacements: Ken Owens (Scarlets, Wales) for Cowan-Dickie, Mako Vunipola (Saracens, England) for Sutherland, Hamish Watson (Edinburgh Rugby, Scotland) for Curry (all 57 mins), Conor Murray (Munster Rugby, Ireland) for Price (64 mins), Owen Farrell (Saracens, England) for Daly (66 mins), Kyle Sinckler (Bristol Bears, England) for Furlong, Daly for Biggar (both 67 mins), Liam Williams (Scarlets, Wales) for Van der Merwe (70 mins) , Tadhg Beirne (Munster Rugby, Ireland) for Lawes (74 mins).
Referee: Nic Berry (Australia).