History repeated as Steyn kicks South Africa to Lions series win


n an eerie repetition of history, the right boot of Morne Steyn – aged 37, and five years after his last Test match – secured a series victory for South Africa over the British and Irish Lions.

In 2009, at altitude in Pretoria, Steyn booted a long penalty to win the Second Test, and secure the series for the world champions. This time, it was a shorter, simpler kick to give the Boks a 19-16 victory in Cape Town, where all three Tests have taken place. The Lions’ wait for victory in South Africa will extend to at least 36 years.

It was a tale of two replacement fly-halves in Cape Town, as Finn Russell was called into action after just 10 minutes and produced an outstanding performance. He nailed every kick – although the Lions turned down a few more – but it was Steyn, brought on for Handre Pollard due to his more reliable boot, who had the last laugh.

It has been an ugly, unattractive series in which off-field bickering has been the dominant narrative. But, in the midst of another wave of Covid-19 in South Africa, it has been some achievement to get the games on, and make it this far. It has been a tour like no other, and has lacked so much without fans. But credit to those who made it happen, not least the bubble-bound players. With so much going on in South Africa, this will be a warming victory.

But this was another poor spectacle that took too long. It inevitably featured a try that took minutes for the officials to mull over, although they did reach the correct decision eventually. Again, there was no great flow to the game, but there was no lack of drama – just like the first two Tests.

Just like last week, the Lions won the first half. It was not in their plan to have Russell on the field after just 10 minutes. They wanted him to break the game over in the second half, after Dan Biggar had set it up. But Biggar went down with a serious-looking knee injury early on, and – with Owen Farrell not selected – it was over to Russell. He had not played for some weeks due to injury.

He inspired the Lions immediately. They threw offloads, and played zippy rugby. He knocked a penalty over, then sent a kickable one to the corner. Ken Owens rolled over to score.

That capped a fine first quarter from the Lions. Their domination of the game continued for the remainder of the first half, but they lacked a finishing touch. Russell kicked two more penalties to the corner, with perfect precision, but they botched scoring opportunities. Worst of all was when Liam Williams failed to feed Josh Adams on the right when they had a two-on-one. It was the sort of opportunity that Adams does not miss.

That Pollard added his second penalty to make it 6-10 at the break added to the sense that the Lions had left plenty out there. They were playing lovely rugby, but had just a four-point lead. The game was physical, and quicker than the Second Test. The Springboks had secured a foothold, and were starting to make Wyn Jones creak at scrum time. Mako Vunipola was brought on shortly after the break, with Jones’ back sore.

South Africa dominated the early throes of the second half, but Pollard hit the post when they first had an opportunity to score points (and it was a simple chance, too). The Lions, who had been camped in their half, tried to play their way out – as is the Russell way. They could not quite manage it.

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