Centre of excellence: the Lions' Brian O'Driscoll offloads the ball under pressure during the first test against South Africa yesterday

IN the end, you had to rub your eyes to believe it. At one moment, the Lions were on the verge of a humiliation, and the next, they were coming within a whisker of stealing this remarkable first test. After a torrid hour in which they were pummelled by the world champions, they somehow picked themselves off the floor to outscore the winners by three tries to two. And it wasn't that a complacent South Africa knew they had the game in the bag – the Lions, inspired by a magnificent Jamie Roberts performance, were genuinely coming on strong with a couple of late of tries from Tom Croft and Mike Phillips.

Add in two missed scoring opportunities by Ugo Monye, as well as a fumble by Phillips as he stretched for the line, and incredibly a lost cause almost became one of the most unlikely victories in Lions' history. When it was all done, the rival supporters trailed out of the stadium with varying degrees of relief and hope. In terms of the result, it was the start the tourists feared, however, they now move up to Pretoria believing another performance similar to yesterday's final 20 minutes could see them draw level in the series. The good news for Ian McGeechan is that the forceful Roberts, in particular, and Brian O'Driscoll managed to find their way through numerous cracks in the Springbok midfield. David Wallace was impressive, two-try Croft had his moments and Paul O'Connell and Gethin Jenkins finished strongly. If the effects of altitude may even things out next Saturday, the Lions were also clearly the fitter team.

On the debit side, there was much head scratching on McGeechan's part at how a grizzled prop like Phil Vickery could be dismantled by the inexperienced Beast Mtawarira, but amid all the guff that is sometimes written and spoken about the dark art of the front row, the simple analysis is that Vickery was taken to the cleaners.

If your tight head alternately has his bum in the air, or is eating dirt, your scrum won't be too hot, and the Lions suffered until Vickery was called ashore early in the second half.

The scrum problems didn't help the penalty count which was 7-3 in South Africa's favour at the interval, and elsewhere, the Lions' line-out was hardly a thing of beauty in the first half, and the forwards were under the cosh for the best part of an hour. The Boks' coach Peter de Villiers had suggested that it might take his team the best part of 20 minutes to warm up, but there was no sign of any rust as they positively exploded into life with the captain John Smit ploughing through for the first try.

The Lions almost hit back straight away when O'Driscoll's long pass put Monye into space, but as the wing was sliding to the line, Jean de Villliers somehow got his hand under the ball. The TMO, Christophe Berdos, took an age to make what was a desperately difficult call, and the verdict went against the tourists. Struggling at the set-pieces, it was no great surprise that the Lions fell further behind as first Ruan Pienaar and then Frans Steyn landed penalties to give the Boks a 13-0 lead after just 11 minutes.

Stephen Jones had missed a couple of penalty attempts as the Lions desperately battled to stay in the contest, and they finally got some reward when Croft finished off a sweeping move which had its genesis in a Roberts' break and O'Driscoll's brilliant supporting line.

Leading 19-7 at the changeover, South Africa won a penalty after they mauled the Lions for nearly 40 metres early in the second half, and when Victor Matfield soared and surged towards the line with a possee of green and gold jerseys around him, Heinrich Brussow got the all-important touchdown. Pienaar's conversion made it 26-7, and by this stage, you feared for the future of the tour. If De Villiers played into their hands by prematurely replacing some of his team leaders, the Lions still came back from the dead.

Phillips nearly scored, Tommy Bowe knifed through the cover, Croft plunged over for his second try, and then the ball was agonisingly knocked out of Monye's grasp by sub Morne Steyn. Phillips dived over for the Lions' third try as Roberts began to wreak havoc in the opposition midfield, and remarkably, there were only five points in it with five minutes remaining.

Afterwards, the Lions rightly played up their comeback, but you still get the feeling that Springboks will be more ruthless next Saturday.

Scoring sequence

5 mins Smit try, Pienaar con, 7-0 11 mins Pienaar pen, 10-0 21 mins Steyn pen, 13-0 23 mins Croft try, Jones con, 13-7 33 mins Pienaar pen, 16-7 36 mins Pienaar pen, 19-7 46 mins Brussow try, Pienaar con, 26-7 68 mins Croft try, Jones con, 26-14 74 mins Phillips try, Jones con, 26-21