Finn Russell believes the British and Irish Lions ‘ran South Africa all over the pitch’, but were punished for not taking their chances in their third Test defeat on Saturday.
Veteran Morne Steyn drilled home a penalty in the final minute to secure a 19-16 victory and clinch a 2-1 series win for South Africa, just as he did back in 2009.
Inspired by Russell who had replaced the injured Dan Biggar, the Lions produced their best rugby of the series in a first half they lit up with off-loads, tempo and ambition.
The only concern was that Ken Owens’ 19th-minute try as part of a 10-6 interval lead was a disappointing return given the time spent in the opposition 22 and so it proved in a tense third quarter dominated by the Springboks.
Cheslin Kolbe struck with a brilliant finish to propel South Africa back in front and set-up a nerve-shredding climax to the series as Russell, Handre Pollard and then Steyn took over from the kicking tee.
But trailing 16-13, the Lions rolled the dice by opting for touch instead of another three points and the gamble backfired when a scrum won after they had been held up over the line saw the Springboks win a penalty to relieve the pressure.
They did not make the same mistake twice, however, with Russell completing a long-range attempt to level the score with five minutes left, but there was still time for Steyn to strike.
Defeat marks the end of a fractious and bad-tempered series for the Lions, who sorely missed the creativity of the Scotland fly-half as he missed the first two Tests completely with an ankle injury.
And while Russell enjoyed his fleeting Test debut, the Racing 92 wizard was left frustrated at the lack of cutting edge about the Lions play.
He said: “We ran them all over the pitch and we created opportunities, we just didn’t manage to take a few of them.
“It’s a shame and, at this level, we’ve got to expect to take those opportunities when we create them.
“But we stayed in the game, even when they went 19-16 up, we got the ball straight away off the restart and we potentially had a chance with that scrum at the end. It was a tight call, but that could have gone either way.
“That’s Test rugby; I’m just very happy I got to play in one of the Tests and actually impose myself and my rugby on it.”
The 28-year-old has dazzled in Europe and on the international stage consistently for the past 18 months, with his absence mostly felt in the Lions squad.
While Biggar performed brilliantly at times in the series, the tempo and the narrative of the third Test changed entirely when Russell entered the fray and illuminated the hollow Cape Town Stadium with his floated passes, soft kicking and composure from the tee.
And while defeat is not how anyone wanted this series to end, Russell was just delighted to be recognized for his day in red.
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“For me, I am very proud of that performance,” Russell said. “It’s the biggest stage in the game and I felt I came on and did myself justice.
“I hadn’t played for four weeks, I wasn’t sure if I was going to be in the squad at all, and I had to come on early and get up to speed as quickly as possible.,
“Like I said, I am very happy to have got a Test cap and to have played pretty well.”