History repeats itself as Morne Steyn lands a last-gasp winning penalty to give the Springboks a 2-1 series victory and leave the Lions lamenting wasted opportunities


South Africa pip Lions 19-16 to win the series

In the end rugby was saved but – for the Lions – not the series. Amid unbearable tension in the closing minutes, Morne Steyn landed the knockout blow to win the third Test 19-16 and thus the series 2-1 for South Africa – 12 years after his long-range effort had inflicted similar misery on the 2009 British & Irish Lions in the second Test.

It looked a harsh call, seemingly for Courtney Lawes not rolling away when he was making every effort to get out of the light at the ruck. But there could be no pointing fingers at French referee Mathieu Raynal, who gave a calm and measured performance.

No, the Lions came up short because for the second week running they failed to capitalise on a dominant first half. In particular, they will look at the blunder by Liam Williams, who inexplicably failed to put Josh Adams in for a try in a clear two-on-one on 27 minutes.

Two minutes later, Tom Curry went offside as the Lions drove for the line from a 5m lineout. The Lions led 10-3 at the time after Ken Owens dotted down from a lineout drive and Finn Russell, sensationally appearing on 11 minutes after injury to stand-off Dan Biggar, landed the wide-angled conversion.

The Lions seemed in complete control, quick ruck ball not allowing the Springboks to set their defensive line. Russell, whose last game had been five long weeks ago on 1 July, had an incredible game. “What a titan,” said Sky Sports pundit Will Greenwood.

But scoring opportunities were wasted and the points that should have reflected their superiority never materialised. 10-6 at half-time did scant justice to the Lions. And, with a certain inevitability, the tide turned at the Cape Town Stadium, just as it had a week ago.

South Africa looked a different animal after the turnaround, putting together 15 phases at one point. The Lions commendably stood firm but cracks began to appear. Wyn Jones went off injured, then Curry was penalised but Handre Pollard’s kick hit the post – the fly-half missed two of his four attempts before giving way to Steyn.

South Africa beat Lions 19-16 to win the series

Maro Itoje makes a break during a match that did much to restore rugby’s tarnished reputation (Getty)

And with cruel irony, the Boks struck a huge blow on 55 minutes. Because when the ball bounced loose from a high kick and was snaffled by Lukhanyo Am, Willie le Roux showed Williams how to execute an overlap by putting Cheslin Kolbe in the clear. The brilliant winger cut inside Williams and shrugged off Luke Cowan-Dickie to score a try that was checked multiple times for a suspected knock-on by Jasper Wiese at the initial aerial contest.

Related: Watch Cheslin Kolbe’s superbly taken try

It was a tight call but the Lions can have no complaints. The try stood and Pollard’s conversion put the Boks 13-10 up. Russell then levelled after Wiese foolishly late-tackled him. Then Steyn made it 16-13 after the Lions collapsed a maul.

The tourists went for broke, getting Mako Vunipola over the line with ten minutes remaining but not to the satisfaction of the excellent Raynal. Kyle Sinckler was then pinged for a scrum offence from the resulting 5m scrum but incredibly all was not lost for the Lions as Russell squared things once again at 16-16 with five minutes till no side.

Ultimately, it was not to be. Steyn kicked the winner and Warren Gatland was denied the unique feat of three unbeaten Lions tours as head coach against each of the three southern superpowers. Even South Africa will feel they got away with one today.

The match did much to repair rugby’s reputation after the tedious offerings in the first two Tests, particularly seven days ago. The Lions put together glittering passages of play, tip passes and offloads stretching the home defence to the limit. It was great to see after the aerial bombardment we had become resigned to.

“We were bold in terms of our tactics. We went out there to play rugby,” said Gatland.

Despite that, the series will not be remembered fondly. Refereeing controversy is part and parcel of high-stakes Test rugby but across the three Tests there were so many incidents, so many delays, so much excessive scrutiny, that flow and tempo were often killed stone dead.

In a perceptive column for The Guardian, Rob Kitson this week argued for stricter guidelines to reduce TMO intervention, the placing of players on report so that replays can be pored over later, and the banning of headsets on the field and a restriction of one water carrier per team. All ideas with a great deal of merit.

South Africa played effective, winning rugby that is not easy on the eye. They continued to slow the game up, one of their water carriers earning a ticking-off from Raynal. On another occasion, a South African physio ridiculously stood in the in-goal area, just yards from the action, as the Lions attacked the Boks’ try-line. Get off the pitch! Watch it here…

However, congratulations to the Boks for succeeding after such a disrupted build-up.

“Our attitude was ‘let’s move on and find the solutions’,” said Boks coach Jacques Nienaber. “Our biggest challenge was getting time to prepare – we had some Covid issues and had to sit in hotel rooms for a week. We lost a week but there was never going to be time for excuses.”

And that late kick by Steyn? “I had my head down between my legs when he kicked that last penalty goal, to be honest – I just couldn’t watch,” Nienaber admitted.

We longed to see the Lions counter all the Boks’ structure with width and ambition, but they too lacked the time and preparation to really do justice to their talents.

Their third-Test performance hinted at what might have been. Robbie Henshaw’s penetrative running alongside Bundee Aki’s power, Duhan van der Merwe’s thundering carries, the ingenuity and boldness of Russell.

And at the heart of it all, the wondrous Maro Itoje, the England second-row who may well find himself captaining the Lions’ next expedition to Australia in 2025. Lawes, Jack Conan and Tadhg Furlong were other forwards to acquit themselves well.

Finn Russell

Puppet master: Finn Russell gets the ball away before being hit by Eben Etzebeth (Gallo Images/Getty)

Let us hope for more from the next Lions trip. Four years ago their warm-up matches had a bite to them because the New Zealand provinces fielded many of their All Blacks. This time the warm-ups were a damp squib, only the Japan and South Africa A fixtures providing a serious challenge to the tourists.

That not only makes for a dull spectacle but provides little guidance in terms of Test selection. The British & Irish Lions want to take on the full might of the Sharks and the Stormers, the Lions and the Bulls, so let’s see the provinces oblige when South Africa next play host in 2033.

At least Steyn, already 37 years old, won’t be around then to put the knife in.

2021 Lions results

Lions 28-10 Japan
Sigma Lions 14-56 Lions
Sharks 7-54 Lions
Sharks 31-71 Lions
South Africa A 17-13 Lions
Stormers 3-49 Lions
South Africa 17-22 Lions
South Africa 27-9 Lions
South Africa 19-16 Lions

Cheslin Kolbe

Winger Cheslin Kolbe, South Africa’s try-scorer, kisses the Castle Lager Lions Series Trophy (Inpho)

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