The British and Irish Lions missed the chance to claim a first series win over South Africa since 1997 as the Springboks fought back brilliantly to claim a 27-9 win in the second Test in Johannesburg.
Warren Gatland’s side were 9-6 up at the end of the first half, which threatened to get out of control at points as both sides had a player sin binned.
Duhan van der Merwe was shown the yellow card for a trip on Cheslin Kolbe. The South African no.14 was then given his marching orders moments later as he attempted to tackle Conor Murray while the scrum-half was in the air.
Robbie Henshaw thought he had scored a try just before half-time after combining well with Ireland teammate Murray. However, the TMO was unable to clearly determine if Henshaw had successfully grounded the ball.
Things calmed down in terms of the players’ discipline after the break but the home side intensified their play massively and were ahead less than five minutes into the second half.
Makazole Mapimpi latched on to Handre Pollard’s clever kick before plowing through Stuart Hogg and going over.
Dan Biggar missed a great chance to regain the Lions’ lead but his penalty struck the post. And halfway through the second half, South Africa extended their lead by a further five points with Lukhanyo Am just about grounding another through ball.
The series is finely poised going into the decider next Saturday and you can listen to full commentary of the match LIVE on talkSPORT.
A feature of the match was the world champions’ growing control of the air as the Lions struggled to deal with the barrage of kicks raining down on them, while up-front the home pack muscled up in a dominant 40 minutes.
Unlike in the first Test that was lost 22-17, the ‘Bomb Squad’ had the desired impact from the bench, and the size of the win as the Springboks powered over the finishing line with their rampant forwards suggests they were undercooked for the series opener seven days earlier.
A major outbreak of coronavirus severely disrupted their build-up but by full-time of this rematch they had rediscovered their swagger as the Lions fell away at an alarming rate.
South Africa were lucky to see Kolbe avoid a red card after he took Murray out in the air, while a high tackle by Faf De Klerk, also on Murray, was given only brief attention by the officials.
Otherwise it was a fine performance by referee Ben O’Keeffe, who was subject to unprecedented scrutiny after Springboks director of rugby Rassie Erasmus released an extraordinary hour-long critique of the officiating in the first Test.
O’Keeffe was calm and composed throughout a fractious match that was constantly interrupted by reviews on a huge number of incidents, with the first half alone lasting over an hour.
In a sign of the conflict to come, tempers flared as early as the third minute with Alun Wyn Jones and Eben Etzebeth locking horns after a South African maul was halted just short of the line.
O’Keeffe seized the opportunity to assert his authority to the captains and a cagey opening was under way with Pollard and Biggar exchanging penalties as the packs tore into each other.
Kolbe came off worse in a head-on head collision with Tom Curry that he instigated, fortunately escaping any sanction, as the Lions continued to edge a ferocious opening quarter.
Biggar was on target with a second penalty and the bad news began to pile up for the Springboks as Pollard missed the posts and 2019 world player of the year Pieter-Steph Du Toit departed with a shoulder injury sustained during an earlier tackle by Duhan Van Der Merwe.
It was a contentious challenge that ended Du Toit’s match but Van Der Merwe did not escape O’Keeffe’s attention for a trip on Kolbe that was punished with a yellow card.
The advantage was rapidly wiped out, however, when Kolbe took Murray out in the air and was also sent to the sin-bin where he could reflect on his luck that the card was not red.
Courtney Lawes and Maro Itoje pinched home ball on successive line-outs as the absence of Du Toit began to bite at the set-piece.
The Lions were now on top as they camped on South Africa’s line, applying pressure with the line-out and then scrum before Robbie Henshaw was unable to ground the ball over the line because of Siya Kolisi’s intervention after grabbing Murray’s kick.
Biggar’s boot gave the tourists the lead for the first time but the second half had barely begun when Pollard hoisted a kick to the wing for Mapimpi to collect and score.
Momentum was growing behind South Africa and a powerful maul swept them forwards before De Klerk grubbered for Am to score, although he did not appear to have full control of the ball.
It was foot on the throat time as Pollard rifled over two penalties and the Lions looked a spent force, unable to match the Springboks’ physicality.