Replacement flyhalf Morné Steyn kicked a late penalty to give the Springboks a 19-16 win over the British & Irish Lions, and ultimately a 2-1 victory in a fiercely contested series.
History has repeated itself with the Boks following up a World Cup win with a Lions series triumph. John Smit and his team of galacticos claimed those prestigious titles in 2009, and now Siya Kolisi and his rainbow warriors have replicated the mighty feat 12 years later.
History has itself in that the man tasked with winning that 2009 decider returned to slot the decisive penalty that clinched the 2021 series.
Many doubted that South Africa would finish this series on the right side of the result. After winning the World Cup in November 2019, the Bok missed 20 months of international rugby due to Covid-related restrictions. They went into the Lions Test series short on match fitness and synergy.
Somehow they have come through the challenge with another title and their reputation well and truly enhanced.
The fact that the tour has been completed should be viewed as a triumph in itself. Before the Lions departed for South Africa six weeks ago, it was feared that the Covid-19 pandemic would bring this important journey – scheduled to culminate in an epic three-Test series – to a premature end.
Shortly after arrival, the Lions squad was seriously disrupted after players and management members tested positive for the virus. Attack coach Gregor Townsend and several others were forced to isolate for a lengthy period. Meanwhile, violent protests and looting broke out in parts of Gauteng and Kwa-Zulu Natal.
It was only after the first Test was staged at the Cape Town Stadium on 24 July that both sets of teams began to settle. The decision to move the remaining two Tests – which were initially scheduled to be played in Johannesburg – to the Mother City was a no-brainer.
All that said, the fans that fuel this series with energy and life were conspicuous by their absence. All three Tests played out in a picturesque setting beneath Table Mountain, and one can only imagine how spectacular the series might have been if the Cape Town Stadium was filled to capacity with Lions and South African supporters.
Indeed, much of the noise was provided by the coaches in the media and then by the players on the field itself. Much was said about the team selections, and what they portended for a decider akin to a World Cup final.
The Boks were forced to make significant changes on the back of injuries to star flank Pieter-Steph du Toit and tactical kingpin Faf de Klerk. Franco Mostert moved from the second row to the loose trio, which necessitated the promotion of another World Cup-winning lock in Lood de Jager.
While this provided the hosts with added power and yet another outstanding lineout option, it upset the balance on the bench. With only five forwards among the reserves instead of six, the Bok Bomb Squad appeared less formidable.
Gatland made six changes to the side that lost the second Test. Liam Williams and Josh Adams were preferred at the back for their aerial ability, Bundee Aki was recruited to combat the power of Damian de Allende in midfield, while scrumhalf Ali Price was reinstated with the instruction to up the tempo.
Up front, however, Gatland opted for the set-piece prowess of Wyn Jones and Ken Owens. Finn Russell’s inclusion on the bench suggested that the Lions might shift tactical gears later in the contest.
Dan Biggar broke down with a serious leg injury in the 10th minute and had to be helped from the field. This resulted in Russell slotting in at flyhalf far earlier than expected.
Russell’s early introduction invigorated the tourists’ attack. The Scottish playmaker troubled the South African defence with a series of cross kicks and inside passes.
The Lions began to find their rhythm in open play, while their forwards started to gain the ascendancy at the scrums and lineouts. The decision to kick a penalty to touch resulted in a pushover try. Russell added the extras and, despite a shaky start, the Lions took a commanding 10-3 lead.
The Boks fought to remain in the contest. The Lions turned down two more kickable penalties in favour of the lineout close to the South African tryline.
On both occasions, the Boks managed to force a turnover. The Lions blew a couple of scoring chances, and went to half-time with a slender 10-6 lead.
The Lions did well to contain the Boks during the early stages of the second stanza. Pollard missed two penalty attempts during this period – and thus an opportunity to edge his team into the lead.
Cheslin Kolbe enjoyed precious few chances over the course of this series. When the Toulouse winger received a hint of an opportunity in the 57th minute, he made it count.
A high ball ricocheted off Jasper Wiese’s shoulder and was caught by Lukhanyo Am, who had the presence of mind to initiate the counter-attack down the short side. Willie le Roux passed to Kolbe, who then proceeded to turn three Lions defenders inside out en route to the tryline.
A long conference between the referee Mathieu Raynal and the TMO Marius Jonker followed, but ultimately the try was awarded. Pollard slotted the conversion from a difficult angle to extend the hosts’ lead to three points.
The advantage was short-lived, however, as the Boks transgressed deep in their own half to hand Russell a chance to equalise. With the score at 13-13 with 16 minutes to play, Steyn – the man who kicked the series-winning penalty in 2009 – was sent onto the field to replace Pollard.
Almost immediately, Steyn was called into action. The 37-year-old slotted the penalty to edge his team into the lead.
The Lions had a chance to level the scores thereafter, yet opted to kick the ball into the corner and to push for the win. The lineout drive was sacked, though, and the visitors conceded a penalty five metres from the South African’s tryline.
When the Lions won another penalty within kicking range in the 75th minute, Russell knocked it over to set up a dramatic climax.
Steyn nearly lost control of the ball in his own in-goal area, but managed to dot it down. Thereafter, the Boks showed the necessary composure to take the ball through the phases and force the Lions to concede a penalty right in front of goal. And from that position, Steyn was never going to miss.
The Lions had one final opportunity to claw their way back. Raynal awarded the visitors a scrum on the Bok side of halfway. But when the scrum collapsed, Raynal raised his arm to give the hosts the penalty, and ultimately the win.