Lions in South Africa 2009

/ Verdict

South Africa 28-25 British & Irish Lions, Pretoria, June 27
Lions wounded by act of foul play
Graham Jenkins in Pretoria
June 27, 2009

What a game. Thrilling and controversial but ultimately heartbreaking.

For the second time in a week the Lions' hopes were vanquished, this time by the home-town boy with the last kick of the game. Morne Steyn's 53m penalty was the last dramatic act in an epic clash at Loftus Versfeld that saw South Africa clinch a narrow 28-25 victory and with it the Test series.

The Lions deserved better than they got from this game but in the end they ran out of steam in the thin air of the Highveld. Their unquestionable bravery was not enough to get them over the line. Injuries and fatigue took their toll and these two factors are an accepted part of the sport. However, another disgraceful element - that has no part in the game - also had a large part to play in the destiny of this series.

The visitors will rightly point to the alleged eye-gouging by South Africa's Schalk Burger on Lions winger Luke Fitzgerald in the opening minute of the game as a key turning point in this Test and ultimately the series. The flanker, who had moments earlier had the honour of leading his side out on the occasion of his 50th appearance in Springbok colours, was soon jogging back to the touchline after escaping with just a yellow card. But it should have been more.

The citing commissioner is sure to take further action in the next day or so but the duty was on the referee and his assistant to get it right in the heat of the battle. If television replays are to be believed, Bryce Lawrence saw the incident and reported it and recommended a yellow card at the least. The exact reason why whistle-blower Christophe Berdos only opted for the yellow card may yet surface but there is no doubt he got it wrong.

The act itself, along with the rest of the game, will no doubt be debated for the next 12 years until the Lions return to these shores.

The Lions did all that was asked of them to take control of pulsating contest - displaying a hunger and a clinical edge that was sorely missing last weekend in Durban. But to their credit the Springboks weathered that storm and amazingly took the lead for the first time in the game with just a few minutes to go. The Lions climbed off the ropes in the closing moments to level the scores and it looked like they would at least keep the series alive heading to Johannesburg next weekend but it was not to be.

In the end their unstinting commitment to the cause may have been their undoing. They gave no quarter and the casualties mounted. Unfortunately the Lions lost a lot of their momentum as a result of all the changes. In addition, their high-octane display in the opening stanza, where they looked keen to run the ball at every opportunity, will have also taken its toll on their energy reserves.

But for Steyn's last-gasp effort the Lions squad - one to 22 would be hailed as heroes. Rob Kearney, Simon Shaw, Stephen Jones, Brian O'Driscoll - the list could go on. But the praise will have a hollow ring without the win they fought so hard for.

It is perhaps cruel to point the finger but replacement fly-half Ronan O'Gara provided a telling contribution for all the wrong reasons. He bounced off Jacque Fourie as the Springboks centre dotted down for his side's late try and a careless tackle on scrum-half Fourie du Preez gave Steyn the chance to snatch the win with the last kick of the game. Some may point to O'Gara's desire to go for the win as he collected the ball in his own 22 with the clock running down and the scores level, but his up and under into midfield and the subsequent challenge on Du Preez will now go down as the defining image of this series.

Burger's horrific indiscretion aside, this Springboks side can be proud of the character they showed to overcome such valiant foes. Du Preez and Habana are worthy of specific praise for underlining their world-class ability.

It was a shame the contest was reduced to uncontested scrums before the game was an hour old. This latest high-profile example of a match being marred by the lack of prop replacements must surely bring changes from the International Rugby Board. But not even that disappointing turn of events could overshadow what was one of the great international contests.

With the final whistle the Lions fell to the ground while their loyal support - estimated at 25,000 - rose as one to their feet to stand alongside their South African counterparts to hail their respective warriors. Yet another series defeat will inevitably raise the question about the future of Lions in the increasingly demanding realms of professional sport - but that picture alone should be enough to convince any doubters that the Lions have a vital role to play in the modern game.

Right now that will be of little consolation to the Lions' Class of 2009, many of whom will never pull on the famous red jersey ever again. But one day they may take some comfort from the fact they played their part in one of the most memorable chapters in the Lions' glorious history.

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