THE coming week in Johannesburg will be a long one. After yesterday's agonising 28-25 defeat, there is nothing bar pride to play for now, but when a test series goes west, you have to wonder whether sticking the chest out for a final shot at South Africa is something the Lions are up for. They went desperately close to at least snatching a draw. Seven days ago, their opening 40 minutes was embarrassingly supine but here the tourists piled into the world champions with intent in what was an extraordinarily physical contest.
There was a strong whiff of controversy right from the kick-off when Schalk Burger should have been red-carded for gouging Luke Fitzgerald's eye, but instead the Springbok flanker spent just the mandatory 10 minutes in the sin-bin. And then six minutes from the end with the Lions hanging on to a 22-18 lead, the replacement centre Jaque Fourie barged past Ronan O'Gara and although he was hit hard by both Mike Phillips and Tommy Bowe, it looked like a try.
Yet the video replay was far from convincing. Could Fourie's foot have brushed the touchline has he lunged? Problem was, the TMO Stuart Dickinson didn't have a clear view and Fourie got the benefit of the doubt.
With the peerless Stephen Jones, who finished with a perfect six from six place kicks, bringing the Lions level, it seemed the game would finish level. But O'Gara hit Fourie du Preez with his shoulder while the South Africa scrum-half was airborne, and with the very last play, Morne Steyn sent the Loftus faithful into ecstasy with a penalty from just inside his own half. It was death for the Lions by one cut.
They Lions were a different proposition entirely yesterday. In Durban, the plan had to play fast and loose and to move the big, lumbering Springboks around. The miserable failure of that strategy brought about the inevitable rethink and so for yesterday win-or-bust match, out went the brains and in came the brawn. Matthew Rees, Adam Jones and the veteran Simon Shaw were brought more bulk to the table, but with Ian McGeechan changing tack in such a radical way in the space of a few days, you feared for the Lions. The Hair Bear might do a number on The Beast, and the tourists always had the superbly balanced midfield combination of Brian O'Driscoll and Jamie Roberts to turn to, yet in the stamping ground of the mighty Blue Bulls, the challenge was fearsome.
Because even in victory, the Springboks couldn't have felt too good about themselves as they departed Durban. Realising they nearly let it slip due to a mix of rash substitutions and complacency, yesterday was as an opportunity for the world champions to demonstrate their power, and to finish the job.
Much had been made during the build-up of the fact that the Lions had to prepare at sea level in the wind and rain of Cape Town, and then move up about 4,000 feet to the rock-hard terrain of Loftus. But then, McGeechan and his brains trust knew the schedule long before they arrived here, and in truth, this was always going to be more about attitude than altitude. Yesterday, there was no shortage of attitude as the Springboks were knocked out of their stride as ferocious tackle after ferocious tackle went in.
When both Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones departed in quick succession, we had uncontested scrums which on this occasion was no great advantage to the Lions who had done their set-piece homework in the past week.
O'Driscoll and Roberts were also forced off during the second half, and although Roberts didn't have the freedom of the midfield area like last Saturday, O'Driscoll as ever put his body on the line with a tremendous defensive performance.
Rob Kearney was also outstanding, while both Paul O'Connell and Jamie Heaslip made more of an impact than in Durban. The gamble on the veteran Shaw paid off in spades and Stephen Jones fully justified his selection ahead of O'Gara.
Unlike the first test, the Lions were bolshie and more clear-headed in what they were trying to achieve. They deservedly led 19-8 after an hour, but ultimately they were outscored by three tries to one, and Ruan Pienaar missed three kicks. It just wasn't to be.
Before yesterday, McGeechan had never lost a second test as a head coach. O'Gara's error and Steyn's mammoth kick put an end to that record, and to the Lions' hopes of a series triumph.
That interminable week in Joburg stretches in front of them now. Pity.