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Lukhanyo Am seals South Africa victory on painful night for British & Irish Lions

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Gallo Images/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Gallo Images/Getty Images

This was definitely not the most thrilling Test match the British & Irish Lions have ever played and the outcome also fell a long way short of expectations. At half-time they led 9-6 and stood within touching distance of an unbeatable 2-0 series lead. Forty minutes later it was the Springboks who were licking their lips in anticipation of the third and final Test in this same arena.

No arguments here, no pressing need for Rassie Erasmus to do any more webinars. South Africa were deserved winners, their second-half forward dominance as significant as the Lions’ failings both aerially and with ball in hand. Their two second-half tries from Makazole Mapimpi and Lukhanyo Am added a slick of gloss to the scoreboard but, ultimately, it was the failure of the Lions to impose their own game on revitalised opponents that will be the abiding memory.

Related: Warren Gatland urges World Rugby to clamp down on Rassie Erasmus’s rants

It was a massive result, either way, for Erasmus, whose very public highlighting of certain refereeing decisions in the first Test worked an absolute treat. This time around the New Zealand referee, Ben O’Keefe, awarded 15 penalties against the Lions and ruled with an iron first, with virtually all the marginal calls going the way of South Africa. On another day both Cheslin Kolbe and Faf de Klerk might have seen red for crass challenges on the Lions scrum-half Conor Murray, but a solitary yellow card for the former was the only punishment that resulted.

On any number of other fronts, too, the Lions will be deeply frustrated. Big games are not meant to be pretty but rare are the successful Lions teams who play scarcely any rugby at all. For long periods this was basically trench warfare in sponsored kit.

The first half lasted almost 63 minutes, long enough to make anyone ponder whether rugby’s law book might benefit from some judicious pruning. Any new sports fans taking a break from the Hundred would have been initially impressed by the commitment on both sides but attacking highlights were scarcer than occupied seats.

Players from both sides grapple after one of the game&#x002019;s key flashpoints, Cheslin Kolbe&#x002019;s tackle on Conor Murray.
Players from both sides grapple after one of the game’s key flashpoints, Cheslin Kolbe’s tackle on Conor Murray. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images

In the cold light of day the Lions will recognise that simply waiting for the Springboks to implode is not going to be enough, even if it worked initially here. The opening quarter was particularly tight, with space virtually non-existent, but the Lions were well in the game. The little bit of niggle started by Alun Wyn Jones which culminated in a prolonged macho stare-off between the Lions captain and Eben Etzebeth was a sign they were up for the battle.

Two Dan Biggar penalties also boosted Lions spirits, and the subsequent exit of Pieter-Steph du Toit, who was feeling the effects of a heavy early tackle from Duhan Van der Merwe, plus a missed penalty by Handrè Pollard added to the growing weight on South Africa’s shoulders. It was an untimely miscalculation, in every sense, when Van der Merwe stretched out a leg with the ball long gone and tripped Kolbe to earn a deserved yellow card.

South Africa, though, were not thinking too straight either. Whether Kolbe was dazed from an earlier collision or not, he badly mistimed his leap with Murray in the air and brought the Irishman crashing down head first. What would Jaco Johan make of this one? The decision was yellow but red cards have been shown for less.

The rest of the first half was more gristle than prime fillet: rugged and uncompromising but in desperate need of a flash or two of quality. Pollard’s long equalising penalty to make it 6-6 was a rare exception but then came the two incidents, both of which went against the Lions, which had a major impact on this stop-start, occasionally ill-tempered contest.

Related: Ball in Warren Gatland’s court after a week that laid bare rugby union’s ugly side | Michael Aylwin

At first glance it looked as if Robbie Henshaw had scored when he rose high to claim Murray’s chip next to the posts and seemingly came down with the ball, only for Siya Kolisi to insert an arm between the ball and the turf and satisfy the TMO that there was no touchdown. Somehow, in all the excitement, the officials did not call for a second angle on the clear head hit by De Klerk on Murray half a minute earlier, which represented perhaps the biggest Springbok reprieve of all.

Biggar, nevertheless, chipped over his third penalty to give his side a 9-6 lead at the interval and put the onus on the Boks to respond. It took them only four minutes to do so, Pollard readjusting cleverly before floating a lovely cross kick left towards Mapimpi, who cut back past the cover to register his 15th try in 16 Tests. Pollard missed the conversion but the Lions’ failure to deal with a couple of high balls in the buildup was still glaring.

Life might also have been easier had Biggar not struck a post with an angled penalty, after he opted not to kick for the corner. Little did the Lions realise it would be their last real chance of the game, with South Africa’s bench and driving maul proving far more effective than in the first Test.

The extra momentum was immediately rewarded, this time when the alert Am was quickest to react to De Klerk’s little chip and touched down just inside the dead ball line. Pollard’s conversion made it 18-9, and three further penalties from the fly-half twisted the knife further.

Only twice have the Lions lost a series having taken a 1-0 lead; they will now have to work hard to avoid the most painful fate of all.

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