South Africa 19-16 British & Irish Lions
Morne Steyn returned to break the British and Irish Lions’ hearts in a Test series again by clinching a 19-16 win for South Africa in the decisive third Test in Cape Town.
Ken Owens’ try and a conversion and penalty from replacement Finn Russell, introduced with just 11 minutes on the clock following an injury for Dan Biggar, had the Lions ahead 10-6 at half time, although Handre Pollard’s penalties kept the hosts within touching distance.
The Springboks hit back to lead through a converted Cheslin Kolbe try which was given after a long television match official review, with Russell and replacement Steyn exchanging penalties to level the score and set up a tense finish.
But, just as he did 12 years ago in the 2009 tour, Steyn stepped up with last-gasp penalty on his return to Test rugby after a five-year absence to clinch a 2-1 series victory for the South Africans.
Lions head coach Warren Gatland rang in the changes for the series decider, making six to his starting XV from the 27-9 loss a week earlier, and the tourists had the first opportunity to take the lead with just two minutes on the clock, but Biggar’s penalty attempt sailed just wide of the posts.
Then Eben Etzebeth’s alertness at the breakdown won a turnover for South Africa and allowed them a spell of pressure which they capitalised on when Pollard kicked them ahead with a 12th-minute penalty.
To make matters worse, Welsh fly-half Biggar was forced off with a knee injury sustained while tackling Lukhanyo Am, but his replacement Russell was soon in the midst of the action for the tourists.
Excellent scrummaging from Lions Test debutant Wyn Jones drew a penalty at a scrum and Russell stepped up to land the resulting kick at goal and draw them level in the 16th minute.
The Lions were then able to get their offloading game going following the restart to make some important inroads and when South Africa infringed at the breakdown within kickable range the bold decision from captain Alun Wyn Jones to kick to touch proved the right one.
With Russell finding touch just over five metres from the Springboks’ line and Maro Itoje getting up to win the resulting line-out, the Lions’ forwards set up a powerful drive which saw hooker Owens dot down at the back of the maul for the opening try which was also converted.
The Lions could well have added to that tally before the break. However, Liam Williams’ decision to go it alone in a two-on-one situation with Josh Adams outside him saw him tackled, while Tom Curry was pinged for being offside at a maul following another five-metre line-out too.
Pollard’s second penalty of the match as the Springboks turned the screw at a scrum five minutes before the break clawed the deficit back to four points at the interval, but the post prevented the fly-half from narrowing the gap further with a shot at goal from a penalty in the 47th minute.
Another miss seven minutes later after Kolbe had been caught with a high tackle by Russell had the Lions breathing a sigh of relief, but in the 57th minute the South Africans took the lead through one of their star men.
A high kick from Ali Price led to the home side regaining possession and it was Willie Le Roux who made the break, drawing in the defence and then passing out wide for support-runner Kolbe to leave Williams and replacement Luke Cowan-Dickie grasping at thin air to score.
It needed a lengthy TMO review over whether Jasper Wiese had knocked on in the build-up while contesting the high ball, but ultimately the officials decided there was no clear evidence to overrule the initial decision of try and Pollard converted to put South Africa three points in front.
Russell nailed a long-range penalty to draw the Lions back on level terms after he was hit late by Wiese as the clock ticked past the hour. However, the introduction of veteran No. 10 Steyn for his first Test appearance for five years in place of Pollard yielded an immediate reward.
The 37-year-old kicked the Springboks back in front with a penalty from just over 40 metres out, but the Lions were not done yet and, after a decision to kick to touch from a penalty did not pay off, Russell landed his third penalty of the match to level the scores again with five minutes to go.
It meant another tense finish and when the Lions infringed inside their half, it allowed Steyn to step up just as he had all those years ago in the second Test at Loftus Versfeld and land the match-winning penalty.