Hang tough: South African captain John Smit goes over for the first try of a dramatic first test against the Lions at the Kings Park Stadium in Durban yesterday

RUGBY is a simple enough game, but it was still hard to fathom what happened in yesterday's extraordinary first test. The Lions were bullied, bossed and looked out of this series when they somehow staged the sort of comeback that was scarcely believable. Trailing at one stage by 19 points and on the verge of extinction, they lost by 26-21 and might, improbably, have won.

It was impossible to conceive that the world champions sat back thinking the job was done, but if there was a touch of complacency, the Lions certainly exploited it in a storming final quarter. Tom Croft burst through for his second try, and with the Springboks defending desperately, Mike Phillips ran through a disintegrating cover for another. With five minutes remaining, a result that had once appeared a foregone conclusion was thrillingly in the balance.

With the power running of the superb Jamie Roberts causing no end of headaches for the winners, the Lions just came up short, but this revival against all the odds has kept their hopes simmering.

They won't want to forget the alarming deficiencies of the first 60 minutes when they conceded penalties to beat the band, but they will dwell on the fact that they outscored the opposition by three tries to two, with Ugo Monye also having one effort ruled out by the TMO and another by the hand of Morne Steyn, while Phillips lost another chance as he stretched for the line.

This certainly felt like judgement day for Ian McGeechan and his squad. Because outside of a World Cup final, it was impossible to think of a game with higher stakes. Lose, and it seemed as if the Lions would be stranded back at Everest base camp without an ounce of oxygen, their credibility and their hopes in tatters.

But win and the Holy Grail of a test series triumph would come tantalisingly within reach. A repeat of the famous 1997 victory would not just beckon, but a tour which has stuttered along because of a chronic failure of marketing and promotion on behalf of the South African organisers, would suddenly explode.

And yet, even in defeat, they will travel to Pretoria next Saturday with a belief that was sorely lacking for much of the contest. The Lions know that the Springboks are not suddenly there for the taking, however, there was sufficient vulnerability in the final quarter to give them confidence for the second test.

Even though the earlier warm-up matches failed to capture the imagination for the simple reasons that the Lions haven't been all that impressive and that their opponents were shorn of Springbok luminaries, there was a strange feeling over the past few days here in Durban that maybe after being written off by nearly everyone, the tourists could actually upset the odds.

As supporters streamed into the city where those '97 legends clinched the series, the optimism was based less on alcohol consumption and more on the tactical plan hatched by Ian McGeechan to remove most of his heavyweights from the equation – Croft and Alun-Wyn Jones in the starting line-up and no Simon Shaw, Andrew Sheridan, Nathan Hines or Joe Worsley on the bench – in an attempt to play fast and loose against the world champions.

However, for the best part of an hour, that plan was worth even less than a South African rand in a hot money market. He reckoned that long-term injury victim, Ruan Pienaar, would be off the pace, and that with John Smit at tight head and the inexperienced Beast Mtawarira on the other side of the scrum, the Springboks would be under pressure.

Instead, Pienaar played like a dream, kicking and distributing with assurance and a fired-up Mtawarira destroyed Phil Vickery to such an extent that the Lions' scrum became a liability. Elsewhere, Victor Matfield reigned supreme at the line-out and to make matters worse the Springboks also managed to pinch a few opposition throws.

It was 19-7 at the interval, and after Vickery's miserable day had ended, South Africa surged even further in front. All appeared to be lost when gradually, inexorably and surprisingly, the Lions began to fire. David Wallace proved he is the leading openside on tour, Paul O'Connell and Gethin Jenkins came more into the game, and suddenly, O'Driscoll and the marvellous Roberts were tearing holes.

A serious repair job is needed in a few areas between now and next Saturday's second test in Pretoria, but after yesterday's finale, surely this series is far from over.