South Africa 19
British & Irish Lions 16
THE Springboks sealed a 2-1 series win over the Lions with veteran stand-off Morne Steyn coming off the bench to repeat his heroics from 2009 by kicking a late penalty to break the tourists’ hearts.
The pain for the Lions will be acute. With Finn Russell outstanding after replacing Dan Biggar at stand-off in the 11th minute, they dominated the first half but let several opportunities to make it really count on the scoreboard slip through their fingers, meaning there was only four points in at the break.
South Africa came out for the second period and focussed on their physicality, and edged ahead through a fine try from Cheslin Kolbe, before Steyn’s late cameo saw them home.
Lions passed up at least four kickable penalties over the course of the game and went to the corner instead. With the benefit of hindsight we can say that was a mistake.
“I’m disappointed, obviously, but I’m really proud of the effort that the boys put in,” said Lions head coach Warren Gatland afterwards. “I thought we were bold, and we went out there to be positive and play some rugby.
“We missed one or two chances and they kind of get a lucky bounce and they score a try against the run of play. There were a couple of 50-50 calls that probably didn’t go our way, but it was a proper Test match. It was tough, it was physical – that’s what you want with a Lions series.
“It was a really tight contest. It could have gone any way. Congratulations to South Africa.”
South Africa started as they meant to go on, with two high balls in the first minute, both of which were won back by the hosts. The Lions followed suit, and were rewarded with a knock-on and offside which offered Dan Biggar the opportunity to get the score-board rolling, but the fly-half’s effort floated left of the posts.
A nice passage of continuity from the Springboks broke the Lions defensive line three times around the 10 minute mark, and eventually led to an offside penalty for the home side, which Handré Pollard turned into three points. More significantly in the context of the how the whole match panned out, Dan Biggar picked up a knee injury, meaning the much earlier introduction of Russell than anticipated, making his first match appearance in five weeks after an Achilles injury sidelined him earlier in the tour.
He quickly settled in, knocking over a penalty four minutes after his arrival on the pitch to level the scores after Steven Kitshoff collapsed a scrum, and following that up in the next passage of play with a cross-kick, three good passes in heavy traffic which had the South Africans scrambling, and the correct decision to hold onto the ball when the pass wasn’t on, which earned his team another penalty on halfway.
The Scottish stand-off fired the ball right into the corner and Lions powered the line-out drive the six yards required for Ken Owens to get the downward pressure. Russell nailed the conversion from wide on the left.
When another trademark flat pass from Russell releasedWilliams down the right, it should have neem try-time, but the Welsh full-back didn’t make use of Josh Adams on his outside. Play was brought back for another Lions penalty near halfway and Russell sent another inch-perfect kick to the corner, but a Tom Curry obstruction stopped a repeat of Owens’ try a few minutes earlier.
Alun Wyn Jones managed to shovel possession out of contact to send Maro Itoje galloping into the Springbok 22 as the Lions continued to dominate with half an hour played, but he ended up isolated and another promising opportunity slipped by.
Lions loose-head Wyn Jones needed fairly extensive treatment five minutes shy of half-time and struggled at the subsequent scrum, leading to a penalty opportunity for Pollard to a make it a four point match.
The tourists had a chance to bounce right back when they won a ruck penalty straight from the restart and Russell once again judged his kick to the corner to perfection, but Itoje ended up conceding a holding-on penalty so there was no more scoring in the first half. It was looking good for Gatland’s team, but the passing up of three or four clear-cut try-scoring opportunities was to prove costly.
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Pollard had a chance to pull it back to a one-point match after seven minutes of the second half when Curry was penalised for being slow to move away from the tackle, but the South African playmaker hit the post.
There was a nervous few minutes for Russell when his right arm connected with Cheslin Kolbe‘s head in a tackle, but referee Mathieu Raynal in conversation with Television Match Official Marius Jonker correctly ruled that the South Africa winger slipping was sufficient mitigation for it to be called a penalty but not a card.
Pollard missed another shot at goal but momentum was now with South Africa, and they streaked into the lead when Kolbe stepped inside Williams and burned Luke Cowan-Dickie on the outside on his way to the line. There was a hold-up while the possibility that Jasper Wiese had knocked-on when competing for a high ball at the start of the move, before Raynal decided to stick with his initial on-field call.
Pollard’s kicking radar returned for the conversion and the Sprinboks were three points ahead entering the final quarter.
South Africa’s discipline slipped for a few minutes, and they gave away a couple of cheap penalties, including one for a late shoulder charge from Eben Eben Etzebeth which allowed Russell to square it.
Then Steyn entered the fray on 65 minutes and two minutes later the 37-year-old slotted a penalty which edged his team back in front, but the Lions were beginning to look dangerous.
Duhan van der Merwe had a charge up the left touchline, Courtney Lawes, Kyle Sinckler and Robbie Henshaw all carried with intent, and when Etzebeth conceded another penalty – this time for slapping the ball out of Conor Murray‘s hand – the tourists went for the corner.
It was a bold move and it didn’t pay off because South Africa sacked the maul, and although Mako Vunipola managed to find a way over the try-line on a short ball, he couldn’t get it grounded and a penalty conceded at the subsequent scrum allowed the hosts to clear upfield.
A thunderous maul from the Springboks had the Lions back-pedalling, but Cobus Reinach knocked-on and a brilliant break through the middle by Henshaw led to a Lukhanyo Am offside, which let Russell make it all-square again.
Steyn was almost the villain for South Africa before he ultimately became the hero because he got himself confused gathering a kick from Russell which had bounced over the try-line and was lucky to get away with it,
Then came the decisive moment. Russell failed to gather a Springbok bomb and a penalty was conceded right in front of the posts with just two minutes left on the clock. For some reason, Jantjies decided to take a fast one and got isolated, but then got out of jail because Raynal called it back for the tap being taken in the wrong place.
Steyn drilled home the three-points and although the Lions won back possession at the restart they ended up giving away a scrum penalty and it was game over.
There can be no real complaints about the result, but the Lions will feel that this was an opportunity they let slip through their fingers.
“When you’re playing the world champions you know it’s going to be really tight contest – it’s going to be a bounce of a ball or a referee decision or something like that,” concluded Gatland. “We were held up over the line then we were penalised at a scrum, which was a little bit unlucky when you’re five metres out from their line.
“The boys gave it 100 per cent and from a coaching point of view you can’t ask for more than that.”
“[But] the penalty count was 15-12 against us and at this level it’s so important. Your aim is to keep your penalties under 10, and if you can do that it makes a significant difference.
“There were big moments like the two-on-one with Liam Williams and Josh Adams, when he should have given the pass, probably. You get one or two chances at this level and you’ve got to make the most of it. You’ve got to be clinical when they come around.
“Probably the most disappointing part of the game was the first 10 minutes of the second half when we just got pinned in our half a little bit then it took us a while to start getting some momentum.”
South Africa: W le Roux (D Willemse 78); C Kolbe, L Am, D Allende, M Mapimpi; H Pollard (M Steyn 64), C Reinach (H Jantjies 64); S Kitshoff (T Nyakane 60), B Mbonambi (M Marx 55), F Malherbe (V Koch 55), E Etzebeth, L de Jager (K Smith 53), S Kolisi (M v Staden 55-62), F Mostert (K Smith 13-21), J Wiese (S Kolisi 63).
Lions: L Williams; J Adams, R Henshaw, B Aki, D van der Merwe; D Biggar (F Russell 11), A Price (C Murray 59); W Jones (M Vunipola 44), K Owens (L Cowan-Dickie 53), T Furlong (K Sinckler 59), M Itoje, A Jones (A Beard 60), C Lawes, T Curry, J Conan (S Simmonds 60).
Referee: Mathieu Raynal.
South Africa: Tries: Kolbe; Con: Pollard; Pen: Pollard 2, Steyn 2.
Lions: Tries: Owens; Cons: Russell; Pen: Russell 3.
Scoring sequence (Lions first): 3-0; 3-3; 3-8; 3-10; 6-10 (h-t) 11-10; 13-10; 13-13; 16-13; 16-16; 19-16.