Once again it was left to Morne Steyn to inflict another 12 years of hurt on the British and Irish Lions. The 37 year-old, in a role that was more straight out of Hollywood movie script than a Test series, had the coolest head on the pitch as he landed the decisive penalty with just two minutes remaining, to break the Lions’ hearts.
The Bulls fly-half had been a rookie when he landed his famous 53-metre penalty in the final minute at Loftus Versfeld to clinch the series 2-0 after one of the most brutal Test matches in the history of the game.
His kick was much more straightforward effort here at the Cape Town Stadium but the impact was not less devastating for the tourists, who had come agonisingly close to snatching victory themselves after producing their finest display of the three Tests.
It was a heart-breaking finish for Alun Wyn Jones, and on his 12th successive Test match for the Lions, the emotions of the occasion understandably were present in his final comments as captain.
“Hugely disappointed with the result, but the endeavour was there,” he said. “We were in it to the death. Very proud of the bunch, very conscious of what we represent. But obviously hugely disappointed.
“Huge pride in the guys, to fall short on a couple of calls is a bit disappointing. This one in particular, I had to work hard to get out here. I know a lot of these guys will be on the next one and I look forward to watching them.”
The game had been edging towards another draw – four years after a tied series against New Zealand four years ago – after Finn Russell had levelled two minutes earlier, cancelling out Steyn’s first penalty having replaced Handre Pollard in the 65th minute.
The drama of the finish only added to the Lions’ huge frustrations as the Springboks, in almost a repeat performance of their second Test victory, managed to take control of a game that had been running away from them with a mix of game management, slow tempo and an accurate and pressured kicking game. Crucially they were also able to reverse the Lions scrum dominance from the opening exchanges, with a shoulder injury to Wyn Jones taking its toll and then Mako Vunipola at times struggling as his replacement.
The Lions simply could not speed up the game as they had hoped and at several key moments of pressure, had to stand and watch for a break in play as a Springbok player required treatment and often it was the home side that would win the subsequent scrum penalty.
It had been Russell who had appeared on course to be the unlikely hero for the Lions, having replaced Dan Biggar as early as the 11th minute, and brought an instant dash of joyful exuberance to a series that had so far been lacking an colour or tempo and it appeared to finally unlock the Lions attacking potential.
A show-and-go by Pollard after Ali Price was caught in a dog leg in defence and a carry by Willie Le Roux led to Bundee Aki shooting out of the line too early. Pollard landed the penalty to give first blood to South Africa. It was an attack that would result in a more profound impact on the contest however. Biggar was forced to limp out of the action with a knee injury, opening a remarkable opportunity for Russell to play 70 minutes of the series decider, exactly a month after his tour had looked over after suffering an Achilles tear.
Russell’s creative genius does not come without its risks, but he looked like providing the Lions with a defining point of difference as he picked out runners, fired a flat cross-kick to Josh Adams and nonchalantly kicked penalty after penalty to the corner as the Lions time and again backed their maul instead of going for the posts.
Initially the Lions struggled to win the collisions as they attempted to hold onto the ball and probe the edges of the Springboks defence and it resulted in the tourists inviting trouble by getting stuck in their own half.
With the Lions getting go-forward ball through the likes of Courtney Lawes, Maro Itoje, Robbie Henshaw and Duhan van der Merwe, Russell was able to bring the tourists attacking game to life and soon levelled with a penalty of his own.
And when the Lions backed this up with a statement of forward intent, when Ken Owens was driven over for a try from a perfectly set line-out, the Lions and both the momentum and attacking verve to dominate the half and look to establish a match winning platform.
And yet for all their first-half dominance the defining moment would come from a moment of fortune, when a high ball by Price was fumbled by Wiese under pressure from Van der Merwe. As it rebounded upwards it was knocked forward by Itoje and gathered by Lukhanyo Am who put Le Roux into space. The Springbok full-back surged forward and found Kolbe, who finished as only he can, skipping inside Williams and then rounding Luke Cowan-Dickie to score in the corner. Pollard’s conversion nudged the Springboks three points clear, and critically it saw the momentum swing away from the Lions, as the tempo of the contest slowed, suiting the Springboks’ pack.
Lions head coach Warren Gatland turned to his bench in the bid for greater tempo, with Adam Beard, Sam Simmonds and Kyle Sinckler making a significant impact. The Lions made a big call to turn down a kick at the posts in order to go for the corner and although Mako Vunipola was driven over the line, the Springboks crucially won a penalty at the five-metre scrum after a couple of resets to clear their lines.
Russell snapped his kick beautifully and the scores were level again, but it was Steyn who would ensure it was the veteran Springbok fly-half that would steal the headlines.