South Africa have sent their series with the British & Irish Lions into a deciding final Test match next Saturday after denying the tourists on Saturday night.
Two second-half tries from wing Makazole Mapimpi and centre Lukhanyo Am and late penalties from Handré Pollard proved too much for Warren Gatland’s men, who had led 9-6 after a bad-tempered first half but fell away badly in the second.
It was almost a mirror image of the series opener, when the Lions rebounded from a 12-3 half-time deficit, scored a try early in the second half and then dominated the set-piece as Springbok discipline collapsed.
Mapimpi and Am’s tries and a powerful bench in tandem with a high Lions penalty count did for the tourists who now have seven days to find the solutions to their woes if they are to avoid a repeat of the 2009 series here and emulate the heroes of 1997.
And after a week of simmering South African anger at perceived slights by match officials in the first Test, this will be seen as a moral victory as well as on the scoreboard.
Gatland had picked a side, he said, to avoid the poor start his team had suffered in the first half that had them trailing 12-3 before a second-half fightback to a 22-17 victory.
The Lions obliged, shading a tempestuous first half to take a 9-6 lead into the interval with Dan Biggar kicking three penalties to Handré Pollard’s two. That tempers frayed from early on in the opening period was hardly a surprise given the tension created by an ongoing war of words between the Lions and Springboks over the refereeing in the first Test by Nic Berry and Rassie Erasmus’s 62-minute video criticising 26 different decisions he felt the Australian official had made incorrectly against the South Africans and accusing him of disrespecting captain Siya Kolisi.
That the first half on Saturday took only a minute longer than Erasmus’s video address was a delicious coincidence but for the opening 40-minute period to take 63 minutes to complete only emphasised how difficult a job this week’s ref Ben O’Keeffe was facing.
He sent two players to the sin bin, with Lions wing Duhan van der Merwe first to walk for a senseless trip on Cheslin Kolbe long after the Springbok star had gathered the ball. He was followed by Kolbe only two minutes later when the Toulouse wing dangerously took out Conor Murray in the air as the Lions scrum-half fielded a high ball. It sparked the second significant dust-up between the two sides as tempers boiled over again with New Zealander O’Keeffe calling the captains together, Alun Wyn Jones and Kolisi advised to calm their players down.
The Lions reacted better after the lengthy break to sort out the wrongdoing after Kolbe’s initial dangerous tackle on Murray, which must have been a borderline red card, but their pressure in the Springboks’ 22 failed to reap dividends as the world champions defended their line wholeheartedly to end a high-intensity if not high-calibre first half of Test rugby.
Just as in the first meeting, it was the team trailing at half-time that struck first soon after the break, Pollard pulling the strings and stretching the Lions defence with two crossfield kicks to the left corner either side of a sortie down the right, the fly-half’s second kick perfectly weighted into the path of Mazakole Mapimpi to turn inside Anthony Watson, around Stuart Hogg and leaving Jack Conan too much to do to prevent the opening try of the game.
Pollard missed the conversion but his vision had pushed the Springboks into an 11-9 lead.
Yet the home side was far from comfortable having hit the front, No.8 Jasper Wiese dropping the Lions’ restart to give the tourists an easy entrance into the South African 22, though when a penalty did accrue to Gatland’s side wide out on the right wing, Biggar missed his kick at goal to blemish his record on the night after three from three in the first half.
The miss was soon punished, as Springbok head coach Jacques Nienaber introduced Lood de Jager, a lock, for No.8 Wiese on 55 minutes, the replacement stealing a lineout a minute later that set the home side of the front foot, leading to a powerful Boks maul that advanced their pack to within five metres, from where Faf de Klerk kicked through for centre Lukhanyo Am to ground just inside the in-goal area, Pollard’s conversion stretching the South African lead to 18-9 with 20 minutes remaining.
It was turning into a second half almost the polar opposite of the first Test with the Lions on the back foot and their discipline beginning to fray, losing field position inside the opposition 22 as replacement prop Rory Sutherland conceded a soft penalty to relieve the pressure on the Springbok and two further indiscretions handing Pollard a shot at goal, courtesy of a scrum penalty which the fly-half took to extend the lead to 21-9.
Sutherland’s discomfort continued at the scrum as replacement tighthead Trevor Nyakane eked another penalty within range as Pollard opened up a 15-point lead with six minutes remaining, and one more to end the game as the Lions completed a miserable and scoreless second half.
W le Roux; C Kolbe, L Am, D de Allende, M Mapimpi (D Willemse, 67); H Pollard, F de Klerk (H Jantjies, 62); S Kitshoff (T Nyakane, 59), B Mbonambi (M Marx, 56), F Malherbe (V Koch, 56); E Etzebeth, F Mostert; Siya Kolisi – captain (M van Staden, 72), P-S du Toit (K Smith, 21), J Wiese (L de Jager, 55).
Kolbe 24-34 mins.
S Hogg; A Watson, C Harris (E Daly, 63), R Henshaw, D van der Merwe; D Biggar (O Farrell, 57), C Murray (A Price, 57); M Vunipola (R Sutherland, 56), L Cowan-Dickie (K Owens, 56), T Furlong (K Sinckler, 56); M Itoje, A W Jones – captain; C Lawes (T Beirne, 70), T Curry, J Conan (T Faletau, 59).
Van der Merwe 22-32 mins.
Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand).