On the charge: the brilliant Jamie Heaslip makes a break away from Morne Steyn during the third and final test in Johannesburg yesterday. The Lions' victory meant they lost the series 2-1

Mark Jones


ANTI-CLIMAX, what anti-climax? There might've been swathes of Ellis Park that were empty yesterday, yet this was an occasion to savour, a ringing endorsement of what makes these tours special. The Lions positively bristled with attitude and competitiveness, and in the end, they succeeded in their mission to salvage some lost pride. If taking an understrength South Africa to the cleaners might not be worth the claw marks in some people's books, no one beats the Springboks by 28-9, and three tries to one in Johannesburg. This was an heroic performance from a group of players which just a week ago looked down and out.

The response was emphatic. While the excellent Tommy Bowe (twice) and Matthew Rees had to pull off try-saving tackles, the Lions were by a wide margin the more accomplished. Phil Vickery made his point at scrum time before being replaced by John Hayes and even if the outstanding Mike Phillips had to move into midfield for much of the second-half in a makeshift backline, the winners tackled as if their reputations depended on it.

The moment might've come too late for Shane Williams but he was another of the vindicated as he scampered clear for a couple of tries. Similarily, Ugo Monye, who killed the game off with a vital interception coming up to the hour mark, was able to forget the errors of the first test and both Martyn Williams and Riki Flutey took their chances impressively.

But if this was a slightly watered-down triumph of collective will and spirit, it was definitely an occasion to celebrate the Irish contribution. Any one of Jamie Heaslip, Rob Kearney or Bowe would've been worthy recipients of the Man-of-the-Match award which somehow found its way to Shane Williams.

The ever-improving Heaslip put in a truly magnificent shift while Kearney's first 40 minutes should be archived as an example of full-back play at its imperious best. As for Bowe, who moved seamlessly into centre, he has been one of the players of the series.

As for the tour itself, there was a mix of old-school values and the desired ultra-professional approach. The Lions got out and about, rubbed shoulders with supporters, and on the face of it anyway, there was none of the internal discontent that had infected the previous jaunts around New Zealand and Australia.

Overall, the games leading up to the first test were a disappointment. There were times, especially against the Golden Lions and the Sharks, when the Lions showed glimpses of their potential but for the most part, the opposition was understrength and stadiums depressingly half-full.

Thankfully, the tests in Durban and Pretoria more than made up for that earlier lack of intensity. They were both tremendous occasions with the sort of compelling full-on rugby that raises tours like these to a special height. First up, Ian McGeechan got his selection badly wrong, the scrum folded, the line-out creaked and only after a couple of key changes on the run were the Lions able to mount a storming, but ultimately unsuccessful, comeback.

For Loftus Versfeld, out went Lee Mears, Alun-Wyn Jones and Vickery from the pack, while Monye also paid the price for some dreadful finishing. At last the Lions bared their teeth in what was a ferocious contest. At one stage it seemed as if they were in complete control and on their way to squaring the series, then they had a draw in their grasp, before finally and devastatingly, Ronan O'Gara conceded that now infamous penalty at the death.

Just a single score separated the teams in both the games and the Springboks' winning aggregate at King's Park and Loftus was a mere eight points. It might well have been 1-1 going into yesterday, however in the end it was one of those could've, should've, but never quite did, sort of tours.

Even in defeat, Brian O'Driscoll and Jamie Roberts were beacons of excellence and if Phillips is hardly blessed with the sharpest of deliveries, he certainly impressed with his combative attitude. Stephen Jones had a fine tour, as did Kearney and Bowe, while Heaslip, Paul O'Connell, Simon Shaw and David Wallace were the pick of the forwards.

The Lions had their share of injuries – apparently the dressing room after the last weekend's game in Pretoria resembled an A&E triage – but Stephen Ferris and Euan Murray were the only players to miss out who had been in contention for the first test.

South Africa were stronger and smarter when it counted. To the world champions, the series, but to the Lions, the final word. Down, but certainly not out.