South Africa 9-28 British & Irish Lions, Johannesburg, July 4
Lions dig deep for memorable victory
Graham Jenkins in Johannesburg
July 4, 2009
Lions head coach Ian McGeechan embraces his captain paul O'Connell following their Ellis Park victory © Getty Images
South Africa came into this game demanding justice and it was duly served - but not in the way they had hoped.
The Springboks, wearing white armbands in protest against the two-week suspension handed down to lock Bakkies Botha in the wake of the second Test, were on the wrong end of one of the great Lions performances which saw the tourists claim due reward for their efforts over the last five weeks and deny their hosts a first-ever series clean sweep.
Bruised and battered and with their own series hopes long since dashed, the Lions conjured a superb display to win their first Test clash for eight years and match the record victory over South Africa set by the 'Invincibles' at Loftus Versfeld in 1974. This reverse was also South Africa's first defeat at their spiritual home since France claimed their scalp here in 2001.
Written off as a broken team and stripped of many of their big names, the Lions proved that team spirit and a remarkable work ethic can still bring results. To have played so well despite so many enforced changes is a credit to the whole squad - players and management. It was quite clear from the outset that there was no way this side was going home without a Test victory to their name.
The Lions have been quick to highlight the family-like bond within this current crop any suggestion that such a claim was just hyperbole was categorically dismissed today. We have also heard plenty about the inspirational power of the Lions shirt and another chapter in that legend was also written.
For those that doubted either element as fact, there was plenty of evidence within the Lions' ranks. Whether it was players excelling out of position - Tommy Bowe and Mike Phillips - or out-of-form stars rediscovering their best - Shane Williams - or those under-pressure rising to the challenge - Phil Vickery.
With this final flourish they accounted for a disappointing Springboks side and this result will have alarm bells ringing about their supposed strength in depth ahead of the Tri-Nations. The form players in the Super 14 some of them may have been but there remains a significant gulf between that competition and the international stage.
The series was already theirs but the proud hosts were not about to roll over. They were beaten back by a defiant Lions side, resolute in defence and impressively creative in attack. They knocked the second-string Boks off their stride and instead of the clinical display of the first two Tests we witnessed a laboured and error-strewn performance from the World Champions. In contrast the Lions found their rhythm early and did not look back.
The game was always going to struggle to match the previous two epic Tests but the 58,318 fans that flocked to Ellis Park on a cold winter's day were treated to a rip-roaring contest from start to finish. In the end the Lions' desire to finish their tour on a high proved a stronger motivational factor than the Boks' chance to re-write the record books. And that hunger was evident from the opening whistle.
Winger Shane Williams may well have claimed the Man of the Match award but the honour could have gone to any number of those in the Lions' ranks. But Williams' two-try burst swung the game the Lions way and deserved recognition. The Welsh speedster looked sharp and fizzed throughout the contest, with nothing to lose he rejoiced in the relatively pressure-free environment of this tour finale.
Centre Riki Flutey was another to rise to the occasion. Exceptional in defence he also produced one of the rare pieces of magic on this tour to set up Williams for one of his scores. The Brive-bound centre chipped over the on-rushing Springboks defence before collecting and off-loading in one swift movement to put his winger away. His piece of skill drew gasps and he celebrated by punching the air as Williams reaped the rewards. His display, that lasted only an hour due to injury, will not be lost on England boss Martin Johnson as he ponders his latest elite squad.
Fullback Rob Kearney was another to deliver a top-class showing. The Irishman, who has improved as this tour has gone on, was assured in defence and under the high ball and carried that confidence into attack. His fellow Grand Slam winner Jamie Heaslip also caught the eye by bouncing back to form after a couple of quiet weeks.
The list could go on with Phillips, Bowe and Stephen Jones underlining their status as tour stand-outs while prop Vickery also overcame the psychological scarring of the first Test by finding his feet in the scrum. Winger Ugo Monye was another to exorcise some demons from the first Test with a stunning intercept try. The only blemish was a clumsy yellow card for veteran lock Simon Shaw.
The sides embraced at the final whistle and the Lions stood to salute the Springboks at the trophy presentation in acknowledgement of their hard-fought series victory. But they must share the plaudits with their visitors because together they have produced one of greatest Test series in living memory.
This result will take some of the shine off the Springboks' series victory but will also ensure they treasure their success a little more. This was a real contest, when many were predicting a one-sided affair, and as a result it will rightly sit alongside their recent triumph in the sport's showpiece event.
For the Lions, today's success will be satisfying but equally frustrating. It will serve as a further a reminder of what could have been in the first two clashes where a total of just eight points separated the teams.
The Lions and their tremendous travelling support deserved this result and it will keep the fires burning amongst players and fans alike until the tourists re-group for a trip to Australia in 2013.