The British and Irish Lions will face a deciding, winner-takes-all third clash against South Africa next weekend after missing the chance to clinch a memorable series victory with a game to spare in the Second Test in Cape Town.
After producing a stunning second-half fightback to triumph 22-17 in the opening match at the same venue last Saturday, the tourists had the opportunity to seal just their fifth-ever series win in South Africa and a first since 1997.
However, the roles were reversed in the second contest, with the reigning world champion Springboks behind at the break but coming back firing, dominating the latter period and having huge success at both the set-piece and with a relentless aerial bombardment to win 27-9 and level proceedings ahead of a massive Third Test.
A stop-start but ruthlessly intense first half lacking any sort of fluidity took more than an hour to complete at Cape Town Stadium as tempers repeatedly flared, with both sets of players failing to keep a lid on their emotions.
Lions skipper Alun Wyn Jones and fellow towering lock Eben Etzebeth were at the centre of the first melee after an early test of the visitors’ maul defence, with South Africa-born Scotland wing Duhan van der Merwe perhaps fortunate to avoid punishment for a tackle on 2019 World Rugby Player of the Year Pieter-Steph du Toit.
The Lions had already been whistled for offside, offering Springbok fly-half Handre Pollard the chance to slot over the first three points from the tee.
Dan Biggar levelled proceedings after a no-arms tackle from Leicester Tigers no8 Jasper Wiese on England hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie, with a nasty clash of heads between Tom Curry and Cheslin Kolbe then leaving the latter with a bloodied nose.
Biggar made it 6-3 to the Lions after another offside, while Pollard missed from the tee after some excellent South Africa counter-rucking had earned the latest penalty with Stuart Hogg isolated.
South Africa lost Du Toit to injury shortly afterwards as Kwagga Smith took his place on the flank, though Jacques Nienaber’s side then had the short-lived numerical advantage after Van der Merwe clearly and foolishly tripped Kolbe as the Boks star tried to gather a loose ball.
Kolbe himself went to the sin bin just a couple of minutes later, lucky to avoid a red card for tackling Conor Murray in the air, with another almighty ruckus sparked after a nasty landing for the Irish scrum-half, who fell awkwardly onto his face.
The Boks’ lineout was struggling but they were having success at the breakdown, with a fine jackal from wing Makazole Mapimpi after a fine grubber kick from Lukhanyo Am earning another penalty that was converted from all of 54 metres wide on the right with super poise by Pollard.
Mapimpi being off his feet for a second at the breakdown after it took three Boks defenders to bring down charging Lions tighthead Tadhg Furlong offered a glorious chance for the Lions to rumble over their rolling maul from a lineout, but Franco Mostert slapped the ball away from Courtney Lawes, only for Maro Itoje to then quickly drive Etzebeth over the Springbok line.
The Lions attacked off the scrum with a penalty advantage and Murray aimed an inventive kick for Henshaw, who gathered it well and went over the line under the close attentions of three South African tacklers, with captain Siya Kolisi’s intervention proving vital.
The on-field decision was no try and there was no clear evidence of grounding during the subsequent TMO review, with the Lions settling for another three points from the boot of Biggar to lead 9-6 at the interval.
Whereas the Lions were behind and enjoyed all their success after the break last week, it was South Africa’s turn to dominate the second half, with Mapimpi touching down the first try of the evening after brilliantly collecting a perfect arrowed kick from Pollard and cutting inside Stuart Hogg to score with Jack Conan draped all over him.
Pollard missed the conversion, but it mattered little as South Africa worked their gameplan to perfection thereafter, with another Biggar penalty that would have nudged the Lions back in front clanging back off the post following an infringement from Smith.
Am added the second try on the hour mark, just about grounding the loose ball after getting to scrum-half Faf de Klerk’s excellent diagonal grubber behind the line before Robbie Henshaw.
The on-field decision was try and there was another lengthy TMO review, but the score was awarded after New Zealand referee Ben O’Keeffe - subject to huge pressure after Springboks director of rugby Rassie Erasmus’ extraordinary hour-long video monologue criticising the First Test officiating with Nic Berry in charge - determined that the centre only needed to register a palm on the ball to be deemed in control, with no clear evidence of separation then following.
De Klerk went off injured with what looked like a hip issue and the Lions emptied their bench in search of some inspiration, but found none as South Africa continued to have huge success in the air and at scrum-time, winning multiple penalties and forcing plenty of knock-ons under the high ball.
Pollard knocked over two more late penalties to set the seal on an impressive Springbok win that leaves everything resting on next weekend’s mammoth Third Test in Cape Town.