South Africa 19 (6) British & Irish Lions 16 (10)
There was an air of inevitably that when Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber named 37-year-old Morne Steyn on the bench for the series decider against the British & Irish Lions, he was destined to provide the denouement to this fractious series.
Twelve years ago in the bright Pretoria sunshine, Steyn landed a last-minute penalty to win the 2009 series in only his second appearance on the international stage.
On Saturday night in the rolling Cape Town fog, winning his 67th cap, Steyn landed a 78th-minute penalty in his first Test appearance since 2016, to give the Boks a 19-16 lead. It was enough to clinch the series 2-1.
Steyn had replaced Handre Pollard in the 65th minute when the scores were locked at 13-13. It was a brave call by Nienaber as Pollard looked fit and ready to play through to the end. No sooner had Steyn been called to arms than he was asked to slot a kick to give the Boks the lead.
He did so without nerves and then immediately undid his good work by failing to find touch after fielding the restart. The Lions roared back into the Bok half and won a penalty. Bravely they went for the corner to set up a lineout drive to attempt to score a try to nudge ahead.
The Boks repelled them, but the Lions eventually won another penalty after what felt like hours pounding the Bok defensive line. This time they went for goal. Flyhalf Finn Russell landed it, to level the scores at 16-16 with four minutes on the clock. The game and the series were in the balance once more.
You just knew it wasn’t over though, and within a few phases the Boks won a penalty as the Lions desperately held the ball on the ground with the Boks’ immense pack making inroads.
It was directly in front of the uprights, about 35 metres back. In 2009 the kick was from 53.8 metres. Technically this was easier, but in reality, the poles must have looked a million miles away.
Steyn though, strode up, took the tee, wafted his storied right boot through the ball and immediately bent down to pick up the tee. No fuss and no drama. Know your job, do your job, is a Bok mantra and Steyn played his role to perfection.
He’d better be careful because at this rate the Springboks might call him for the 2033 Lions series when he will be 49.
“The last five minutes I was sitting with my head between my legs,” coach Jacques Nienaber said. It’s a special group and I’m happy for them, and we need to build from here.”
The Springboks are now reigning world champions, Rugby Championship holders and winners of a Lions series. Current captain Siya Kolisi joins John Smit as the only Bok captains to win a World Cup and a Lions series. The global pandemic permitting, the Boks are building a great body of work that feels like the beginning of a golden era.
In the process the Boks became the first side since Australia in 2001 to come back to win a Lions series after losing the opening Test. It was an example of their immense character by the home team who were playing only their fifth Test since winning Rugby World Cup 2019.
The Boks lost the first Test 22-17, dominated the second on their way to a 27-9 victory and then came from 10-6 behind in the decider to win a match that was always on a knife-edge.
It was a series in which neither team held clear dominance. The Lions “won” three halves and the Boks “won” three halves. But South Africa won more key moments and scored four tries in the series to the two of the Lions.
There was never much in it throughout but the Bok pack, as many expected, held a slight edge over the course of the series. In the decider the Boks scrum edged the second half battle and won penalties at crucial times, especially in the 74th minute when the Lions had a put in five metres from the Boks’ line.
The scrum collapsed and French referee Mathieu Raynal deemed that the Lions had caused it. On such fine margins are massive sports matches decided.
But if the Lions are honest with themselves, they should have put the match and the series away in the first half. They completely dominated the stanza but failed to make their dominance count.
The Lions missed multiple gilt-edged opportunities to put the game beyond the Boks by halftime. After a rolling maul try, scored by hooker Ken Owens, the Lions twice more had five metre lineouts. They were penalised for “changing lanes” with one of them when they had set the maul, and the second Bok lock Eben Etzebeth poached the lineout in front of opposite number Maro Itoje.
Fullback Liam Williams also failed to pass when he had a free Josh Adams outside him with an open tryline ahead. Those were key moments in the match.
The Lions lost flyhalf Dan Biggar to injury early in the match, forcing Russell into the game earlier than anticipated. Russell’s injection changed the momentum and the Lions suddenly looked more dangerous.
Russell played closer to the advantage line and engaged the Boks’ defence and opened up some holes around him, which the Lions managed to exploit to break the line.
The Boks were simply not in the game, but they managed to make the most of the little territory and possession they had and came away with two Handre Pollard penalties to stay within four points of the tourists at the break.
After halftime the momentum of the match shifted to the home team but Pollard missed two penalty shots. The Boks’ pressure was not producing points. Instead of folding, they showed their composure though and pounced when another opportunity came their way.
Lions scrumhalf Ali Price lofted the ball into Bok territory where it bounced off No 8 Jasper Wiese’s shoulder. Lukhanyo Am collected, fed Willie le Roux who freed Cheslin Kolbe.
The little wizard, who had not seen two inches of space in the series, suddenly had about 10 metres to work in. He stepped past fullback Liam Williams and brushed off the covering hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie to score and give the Boks the lead for the first time in the match.
The Springboks never fell behind again as the game inexorably moved towards a crescendo where Morne Steyn was on hand to make history. Again.
South Africa – Try: Cheslin Kolbe. Conversion: Handre Pollard. Penalties: Handre Pollard (2), Morne Steyn (2).
British & Irish Lions – Try: Ken Owens. Conversion: Finn Russell. Penalties: Dan Biggar, Russell (2). DM