I've travelled this old world of ours from Barnsley to Peru,
I've had sunshine in the arctic and a swim in Timbuktu,
I've seen unicorns in Burma and a Yeti in Nepal,
And I've danced with ten- foot pygmies in a
I've met the King of China,
And a working
But I've never met a nice South African
'I've Never Met A Nice South African'
It's galling but you might as well ask Pyrrhus after the battle of Heraclea. The South Africans, for the next 12 years, will let you know that the series was in the bag and their narcoleptic performance and their constipation of ideas reflected that and, yes, they were stuffed out of sight yesterday by a Lions team who managed to supersede some of the tighter margins in yet another horrifically brutal and despite the score line competitive test match.
There is no unthinkable complexity to it. Quality is never an accident, it is always the result of intelligent effort and the Lions played as only a team that had been attacked by self-doubt could, that is to go out and express itself and do justice to all the unit members who played yesterday. The key to it? Incremental improvements – a 1 per cent improvement in vital areas of their performance was enough for them to take this game. They controlled the breakdown, they were highly intelligent and organised on the tackle line and they were very physical all around the pitch. The South Africans disrespected the Lions too much and some of the changes they made told against them.
The South African back three were completely out of their league. They were bossed in the air and in terms of their supplementary work-rate they never seemed to go looking for the ball or make interventions the way Bryan Habana and JP Pietersen had done. The South African halves also gave very little direction and authority despite having a reasonable percentage of possession. Fourie du Preez looked to be injured from early on in the first half and he was not as influential as he had been in the previous two tests. Morne Steyn was found out and was very one-dimensional in his application. The Blue Bulls fans might have been baying for his introduction in last week's match but he is one of the most over-rated players since Judas Iscariot won the 31 AD Disciple of the Year award.
But this was the Lions day and every unit and compartment out-performed showing real character and resilience. The quality, accuracy, efficiency and execution of their play was far superior to anything that South Africa could produce and if you needed a moment where you could point to where the Lions mind-set was based it happened in the 51st minute with the score at 15-6. The Springboks, you suspected, were changing through the gears just then. Would the fragility of the previous two tests be exposed when the Boks went chasing the game? From the very start, the pace set by the Lions had been almost suicidal – would they be able to maintain it in the last 25 minutes? After spending 10 days at altitude they seemed to be far better able to cope with the lung burn and the deficit of oxygen in their blood and they finished the stronger side.
From a line-out in Lions territory Matfield took it in the air, dummied the drop-down and then flicked the ball through the middle of the line-out to the recently introduced Ruan Pienaar at scrum-half. Only Moses when he opened up the Red Sea had a bigger gap to go through. Pienaar scampered through at pace but the Lions cover was good and as the phases went through there was so much certainty in the Lions tackling that you sensed the Springboks really had no ideas.
They got to the right-hand corner after a number of phases and had a scrum which looked to be in a position of advantage for them. The Lions scrum came under the pressure for one of only a few times in the match. The penalty was declined as the Boks went for the throat and you feared this would become the moment of disintegration as the Boks coolly went for the line-out maul. Such was the Lions determination and ferocity that they sent the Springboks back nearly ten metres with some superb counter-rucking and direct angular hits. It was the seminal moment in the match to see a Springbok pack being abused in that manner silenced their crowd and self-doubt began to creep in.
The Springbok three-quarters took ball on the back foot and Wynand Olivier got on to Western Union to tell them that he would be throwing a long cut-out pass to the highly unimpressive Zane Kirchner. It wasn't the classic Shaun Edwards blitz but with commendable cojones Ugo Monye came up out of the line, he had anticipated and had been greatly aided by the impotent Springbok back line. He stuck the hand out – normally it's a 50-50 chance that he would knock it on but today he was wearing the Velcro and it stuck – and he raced 80 metres under the sticks to win the match for the Lions. He blessed himself, kissed his knuckle and then raised his eyes to heaven to acknowledge his maker who I am sure had a part to play in it, but he might have also pointed to his pack who had a far greater role to play than Our Lord.
From an Irish perspective it was a good day. Heaslip had a huge game, one that we had been expecting in the first and second test. His hunger and competitiveness made him the standout Lions forward and his carrying at vital moments ensured the Lions were always using go-forward ball. It is his ability to transfer in the tackle one-handed and at pace which distinguishes him from run-of-the-mill number eights. He did brilliantly to get up from a Wynand Olivier half-tackle on the half way line and went again and Shane Williams was drawn to the flame as his nose for more try line glory led him to shadow in exactly the right spot for the off-load. Williams did the same when he shadowed Riki Flutey whose anticipation and wondrous one-handed acrobatic flick pass inside found the Ospreys winger – surprise surprise – in the same support role.
Defensively the Lions had upped it a couple of levels and my man of the match Mike Phillips had a phenomenal tackle count which must have gone into the 20s, even when he was moved to centre. The Lions kept the ball and they managed to pick off crucial turnovers at crucial times despite the presence of Heinrik Broussow and for once their dominance of possession and field position was telling.
With the margins being so tight and the Lions coming so close they left nothing in the dressing room or on the field. They say that you should never die wondering, but how many of this group of 2009 will go to their graves thinking, "What if?"