CAPE TOWN, South Africa (SATSports) – South Africa won the series against the British and Irish Lions 2-1 after winning a gripping third test 19-16 thanks to a 79th-minute penalty by old heart-breaker Morne Steyn on Saturday.
Their last series in 2009 was clinched by a Steyn penalty, and he remarkably did it in dramatic fashion again 12 years later.
Steyn hadn’t played a test since 2016 but was brought into the reserves for this series decider for his experience, temperament and positive attitude.
He was sent on in the 65th minute for flyhalf Handre Pollard, who had missed two consecutive penalties, and landed both of his chances, the first to regain the lead at 16-13, and the second to win the series.
“As soon as he went for the kick, I was like, ‘No way!’ But it was beautiful to see him stay strong,” inspirational Springboks captain Siya Kolisi said.
The Lions, heavily criticized after being thrashed in the second test, tried a bolder approach in the decider: To play at pace and run the Boks ragged. But the plan didn’t click until flyhalf Dan Biggar hobbled off in the 11th minute and was replaced by Finn Russell, the maverick who hadn’t played in four weeks because of an Achilles issue. In an ambitious halves partnership with fellow Scot Ali Price, Russell transformed the Lions’ attitude by attacking the line.
The Lions were too positive for their own good, however. Three times they had kickable penalties, and three times they gambled and kicked for corner lineouts.
The first time it worked in the first half and bagged them seven points. The second time at the end of the first half, the lineout maul was penalized for an illegal block by Tom Curry. The third time, at three points down, 10 minutes to go, and not wanting a drawn series as their last tour finished in New Zealand in 2017, Mako Vunipola was carried over the line but held up.
“Even though the players have given everything, they’ll probably look back and there’ll be a moment in the game,” Lions coach Warren Gatland said. “That’s what you’re working to, to eliminate those moments. I can’t complain.
“We went to stress them and we turned down three-point opportunities to build a bit of a lead and force them to play a bit.”
The next kickable penalty, the Lions went for the posts, and Russell tied the score in the 75th.
But then Russell dropped a high ball, Damian de Allende cleaned up and put the Springboks on attack, and they received a penalty. Steyn coolly slotted it from 34 meters and clinched the series.
The Springboks triumphed against the odds after losing the first test. Before the series, their buildup was ruined by coronavirus outbreaks in their squad. They played only one of two scheduled warmup tests against Georgia, their first action since winning the 2019 Rugby World Cup. Kolisi wasn’t cleared to play until five days before the first test.
“This group had so many challenges, with our first proper training just before the first test,” Kolisi said. “We decided that there will be no excuses — people would not accept that anyway. We knew if we step onto the field, we needed to be ready to play.”
But they didn’t come alive until the second half of the second test, and went into the third in another empty Cape Town Stadium with momentum, and emboldened confidence in their kick-chase game with suffocating defense.
For the first time in South Africa, the Lions lost a series after winning the first test. They took on the world champions at their own game, but weren’t as good at it. Wanting to up the tempo and keep more ball in hand, the plan started with setbacks — Biggar injured, Pollard kicking the first points — but Russell s arrival made the Lions suddenly potent.
A scrum penalty was kicked over by Russell, and settled his nerves.
Then the Lions played 10 phases, and received a kickable penalty. But as with their only previous try in the first test, skipper Alun Wyn Jones preferred a corner lineout. Maro Itoje took it, the Lions mauled, and the hooker scored.
Ken Owen’s try was converted by Russell and the Lions led 10-3 after the first quarter.
They continued with exciting intent but blew chances.
Liam Williams, ace under the high ball, ruined a two-on-one by taking a tackle instead of releasing Josh Adams with no Springboks in sight. Moments later, another kickable penalty was put into the corner, the Lions mauled off Itoje but Tom Curry conceded a needless penalty.
The Springboks finished the half’s scoring, a scrum penalty slotted by Pollard, which made him the third Springbok to reach 500 test points after Percy Montgomery and Steyn.
Down 10-6 at halftime, again, as in the second test, the Springboks made a powerful start to the second half, again. They pinned down the Lions but Pollard missed two penalties to give them the lead.
The pressure finally turned into points when Lukhanyo Am collected a loose high ball, released fullback Willie le Roux, who finally gave right wing Cheslin Kolbe the ball and space for the first time in the series. Kolbe thrilled, stepping inside Williams and fending off Luke Cowan-Dickie for a brilliant counterattack try. With Pollard’s conversion, they led 13-10.
Russell punished Jasper Wiese’s late hit with a tying penalty, then Steyn came on and shrugged off the ramping tension to grab the spotlight yet again.