South Africa took a massive stride towards a redemptive series victory over The British & Irish Lions with a dramatic 26-21 victory over the tourists in Durban on Saturday afternoon.
The Springboks bossed the game for nearly an hour and took the lead with an early try through captain John Smit.
Ruan Pienaar and Francois Steyn then added penalties before the somewhat shell-shocked visitors finally got off the mark midway through the first half when Jamie Roberts and Brian O’Driscoll combined for a try for Tom Croft.
Pienaar responded with two penalties for South Africa, though, and the reigning world champions went in 12 points clear at the break.
The Springboks underlined their superiority with a second try from Heinrich Brussow just six minutes after the interval but The Lions then launched a valiant late bid to salvage the game.
First, Croft crossed for the second time in the game before Mike Phillips sniped over with just over five minutes remaining to draw the tourists to within five points of parity.
Springbok nerves started to fray but they survived a spirited late onslaught from The Lions to claim a significant early advantage in what looks to have the makings of an epic Test series.
The importance of winning the first meeting between the two sides was clear to everyone, though. The Springboks had not played together in seven months and most of their players had been inactive for nearly four weeks. That the game was at sea level was also thought key. The Lions needed to strike first.
However, their hopes of a strong start were left in tatters after just four minutes, Smit barging his way over the whitewash after an incessant spell of pressure from The Boks. It was a stunning early statement of intent from the hosts, from the skipper. The Lions had been put in their place.
The tourists needed an immediate response and they almost got one but Jean de Villiers expertly denied Ugo Monye when the England winger looked to have crossed in the corner.
As it was, Pienaar and Steyn kept the scoreboard ticking over before The Lions finally got off the mark, with Croft touching down after a line-out steal from O’Connell created some time and space for midfield duo Roberts and O’Driscoll to work their magic.
That was to be as good as it got for The Lions in the first half, though, with Pienaar contributing two further penalties to keep the visitors at arm’s length.
For The Lions, who had been decimated in the scrum and proven horribly vulnerable at the lineout, to have any hope of turning the game around, it was imperative that they started the second half as strongly as The Springboks had started the first.
However, with five minutes those hopers were in disarray, Brussow, The Lions’ tormentor-in-chief at the breakdown in the clash with The Cheetahs a fortnight ago, crashing over after more forward pressure from the men in green.
The Lions, in fairness to them, took the game to their hosts from that moment on, and their efforts were rewarded when Croft broke through to score his second try of the game some 12 minutes before the end.
The Lions threw everything they had left at The Springboks in the closing stages and Monye would have scored in the 72nd minute had it not been for a stunning try-saving tackle from Morné Steyn.
As it was, though, Phillips spotted a gap moments later and sneaked through to score under the posts to set up a grandstand finale.
The Lions poured forward but The Springboks held firm to claim a victory that they had been waiting 12 years for.
They will now move on to Pretoria confident of finishing the job.
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