The cacophony of noise emanating from South African quarters had noticeably softened on the final whistle. Gone was the bitter diatribe that had dominated the week and in its place pride and a feeling that justice had been done after the injustices of the week before.
Leading the ‘Cheshire Cat’ smiles was Rassie Erasmus, that genial, big-hearted former Springbok, who grew up on the sunny Eastern Cape, but resorted to shady guerrilla tactics this week to ghost social media and rage against officialdom. Think Tony Montana in his Cuban lair before going out all guns blazing.
Whether the former backrow sticks around in the divided Rainbow nation, or takes up a highly-paid coaching role in Europe or Japan is a source of some speculation, but after this spirited comeback he will be afforded the freedom of Cape Town if he can strike a metaphorical bloody nose on the Lions and finish the job. Indeed, a telling blow had already been landed if you saw the claret on the bridge of Lions totem, Alun Wyn Jones’ nose.
By the final whistle, this was no split points decision, more of a knockout as the life was irrevocably squeezed out of the touring team.
The siege mentality adopted in the week leading to the second Test was reinforced early on, with Eben Etzebeth whispering a few Afrikaans niceties to the snarling Lion captain, whose eyes seared into the big second-row, but as the game plodded on in staccato fashion, it became clear that an aerial bombardment was their weapon of choice as Faf de Klerk, Handre Pollard and Willie le Roux lofted towering balls on the Lions back three. The hang time was wickedly accurate and the appointed bomb defusers, Anthony Watson, Duhan Van der Merwe and Stuart Hogg simply lost all composure as they repeatedly handed back momentum to their tormentors.
The mediocrity spread into other facets of the game, as the Lions discipline imploded, giving away 15 penalties to South Africa’s 10, and lost the breakdown battle with 14 turnovers conceded to the Boks’ six.
Cheslin Kolbe had been sent to the sin-bin for taking Murray out in the air. While the officials pontificated and the braying social media mob waved red cards, the card that finally emerged from O’Keeffe’s pocket was of a yellow hue.
It hadn’t all been one-way traffic. In a first-half that clocked mind-numbing 63 minutes, the Lions were ahead on points and the scoreboard. Then came the game’s pivotal moment. On 35 minutes, with advantage in the Lions favour, Conor Murray dinked a delicious chip over the defence to an airborne Robbie Henshaw. As gravity started pulling him towards terra-firma a try seemed a forgone conclusion. Enter Kolisi, who had been a ruck guard at the preceding play. He somehow wrestled the ball out of the Irish centre’s grasp as he was about to apply downward pressure. Ben O’Keeffe took his time, stroked his chin, replayed the VT and signalled no-try.
In the preceding passage of play another let-off for the Springboks. An onrushing Faf de Klerk clattered into Murray and was within millimetres of card territory saw, yet O’Keeffe saw no case to answer.
At this point in a fractious affair, both sides were down to 14-men after Cheslin Kolbe had been sent to the sin-bin for taking Murray out in the air. While the officials pontificated and the braying social media mob waved red cards, the card that finally emerged from his pocket was of a yellow hue. Kolbe was left to trudge disconsolately to a chair a matter of feet from his old Sevens pal, Duhan van der Merwe, who had himself been binned for an agricultural lunge on Kolbe that would have made Vinnie Jones blush.
The intervention from Kolisi gave the Springboks belief and after the break they struck first when a fluid passage of play saw Handre Polllard first shape to pass but then lift his eyes, scan the turf in front of him, and chip the ball onto the onrushing Makazole Mapimpi to step off his left-foot, past Hogg and over the whitewash. Momentum shift complete.
The vice-like grip exerted by the Boks was increasingly aided by the Lions inaccuracy. The lack of confidence in their back-three spread throughout the team as balls were dropped, lineouts fumbled and the Lions scrum dismantled.
One of his unheralded foot soldiers was Am, who had drawn blood in one of his mighty collisions but still had the desire to outpace the Lions defence, after a surgically placed kick-through the Lions defence from de Klerk, to dot the ball down with the deadball line fast-approaching. Again, it was a marginal call, with the midfielder getting the merest of downward pressure on the ball. More replays, but the try was given.
The Lions tried and failed to land a glove on the Springboks. They could not stop them mauling. They could not catch a break in the air and they could not manage to rock the Boks back on their heels.
As the game slipped into its final quarter, Lood de Jager entered the fray to impose his 6ft 8in frame on the lineout and Malcolm Marx came on to dominate the breakdown.
The Lions tried and failed to land a glove on the Springboks. They could not stop them mauling. They could not catch a break in the air and they could not manage to rock the Boks back on their heels. A playful flash of the tongue from Trevor Nkayane exhibited the fun they were having at scrum-time, too.
While the camera panned, intermittently, to the bespectacled head coach Nienaber in the stands, it was the water boy, Erasmus who was closer to the action. Smiling, cajoling, offering his almost paternal advice to his disciples who you suspect would follow him off a cliff if he asked them to.
As the game crept towards its final act, any hint of a contest had long since dissipated as Pollard was given ample opportunity to tick the scoreboard over as the Lions chased the game in vain.
Indeed, the Springbok management were afforded the luxury of a hearty embrace well before the final whistle, to the chagrin of the Lions top brass.
The game’s final act was a beautifully drawn conversion from Pollard as the clock turned red. A fitting end for the dominance the Springboks had enjoyed. As the players embraced, around them pockets of red shirts fell to their haunches, despondent, reaching for breath and looking for answers before being called into a huddle by that old warhorse, Jones, who had been at this juncture in Australia.
Gatland must go for broke and find his own Red Barons to rule the skies or risk being irredeemably wounded as Erasmus’ Boks look to finish the job in the trenches
The Welsh captain, will make his 12th appearance for the Lions in the final Test, drawing him level with the likes of greats Mike Gibson and Graham Price, and he will have to use all of his famed motivational powers to lift the Lions from their torpor.
For his old sage, Gatland, an erroneous selection will have to be remedied. Gatland must go for broke and find his own Red Barons to rule the skies or risk being irredeemably wounded as Erasmus’ Boks look to finish the job in the trenches. Liam Williams and Josh Adams seem certain to get the tap on the shoulder this week and the return to the front row of Wyn Jones would be a fillip to the bedraggled touring party.
For the rest of us, there can only be a hope that this most bad-tempered, irascible of Series will save some flowing rugby for the coup de grâce instead of rancour, but you wouldn’t bet your house on it.
More stories from Owain Jones
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