Springboks 28 Lions 25
The British and Irish Lions suffered Test series heartbreak at Loftus Versfeld after Springboks substitute Morne Steyn stunned them with an injury-time penalty.
Substitute Ronan O’Gara was the Lions villain, tackling scrum-half Fourie du Preez in mid-air to hand local hero Steyn his chance for glory from 54 metres out.
The Blue Bulls fly-half kept his nerve before being mobbed by his team-mates after South Africa took an unassailable 2-0 series lead following their win in Durban last weekend.
It was the cruellest of blows for a wonderfully committed Lions side to take.
Stephen Jones had earlier kicked 20 points and full-back Rob Kearney scored a first-half try, but the world champion Springboks kept plugging away during an unforgettable contest of brutal intensity.
The Lions suffered blow after blow – props Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones, plus centres Brian O’Driscoll and Jamie Roberts all went off injured – yet they refused to lie down until the last-kick drama.
It was a record seventh successive Test defeat on tour for the Lions, who now only have pride left to play for in Johannesburg next Saturday.
They have not won a Test series since toppling the Springboks 12 years ago, and questions will inevitably be asked about their future role in an increasingly demanding professional sport.
But they pushed South Africa to the wire – and beyond – before slumping to their knees as Steyn bisected the posts.
The Lions had heroes everywhere – no-one more so than 35-year-old lock Simon Shaw, whose magnificent Test debut gained its deserving reward when he was named man of the match.
South Africa kept themselves in the contest as Bryan Habana, his fellow wing JP Pietersen and substitute centre Jaque Fourie scored tries, the latter just six minutes from time following lengthy deliberation by Australian television official Stuart Dickinson.
Steyn added 10 points from the boot, while his namesake Francois slotted a long-range effort, and the Lions were thwarted.
It was a game that had everything, and is still not over for Springboks flanker Schalk Burger, who must surely be facing a disciplinary hearing tomorrow after he clearly eye-gouged Lions wing Luke Fitzgerald inside the first minute of the match.
Referee Christophe Berdos opted for a yellow card for Burger, who was winning his 50th cap, but television replays suggested it should have been red, with Burger now looking certain to be cited by the match commissioner.
The Lions cashed in on his 10-minute absence, taking the lead through a Jones penalty and then carving South Africa open by creating a quality try for Kearney.
Berdos had been forced to issue a warning just seconds before following a dust-up sparked by Springboks lock Victor Matfield, yet the Lions kept their focus.
Scrum-half Mike Phillips launched a blindside attack, and Jones’ exquisite off-load freed Kearney, who finished majestically.
Jones’ effortless touchline conversion put the Lions 10-0 ahead after they delivered a start in stark contrast to their efforts in Durban seven days ago.
South Africa needed an immediate response, and it arrived within five minutes when flanker Juan Smith and Du Preez combined from a lineout and Pietersen exploded through an inviting midfield gap.
Ruan Pienaar hit the post with an easy conversion attempt, before a second Jones penalty and a magnificent defensive Lions scrum under pressure underlined their colossal first-half improvement from last weekend.
The Lions were once again confident with ball in hand, and after going through the phases deep inside Springboks territory, Jones dropped a short-range goal.
It was impressively assured rugby from the Lions, and although Steyn booted a long-range penalty as half-time approached, South Africa still had it all to do at 16-8 adrift.
There were big problems for the Lions though within six minutes of the restart as props Jenkins and Jones both went off.
Jenkins clashed heads with Habana, and was forced off nursing a head wound, but worse was to follow when Jones suffered a serious-looking arm injury.
Lock Alun-Wyn Jones took over from his Ospreys colleague, with Andrew Sheridan replacing Jenkins, yet it meant uncontested scrums for the final 30 minutes.
A scoreless third quarter played into the Lions’ hands, and the physical intensity of the match was further underlined when a collision between O’Driscoll and Springboks substitute Danie Rossouw ended with Rossouw going off just four minutes after joining the action.
O’Driscoll only lasted another two minutes though, making his exit after South Africa had cut the deficit in ruthless fashion.
Habana sprinted over for his 33rd Test try in 48 games, finishing off a rapier-like move, and substitute Steyn’s conversion set up a gripping finish with the Lions leading 19-15.
Steyn then slotted a penalty that cranked up the pressure on the Lions, but the immaculate Jones quickly responded, making it 22-18 with 10 minutes left.
An injury to Roberts meant the Lions had to reorganise their back division, and they entered the closing stages with O’Gara at fly-half, Jones and wing Tommy Bowe in midfield and Fitzgerald and Shane Williams on the wings.
There was a sense of the Lions hanging on, and they relinquished their lead five minutes from time when Fourie squeezed in at the corner and Steyn booted the touchline conversion.
A draw would have been arguably the fair result – but Steyn had other ideas.