South Africa (19) 26 Tries: Smit, Brussow Cons: Pienaar 2 Pens: Pienaar 3, Steyn Lions (7) 21 Tries: Croft 2, Phillips Cons: Jones 3
Lions wing Ugo Monye came agonisingly close to scoring in the second half
By Bryn Palmer
BBC Sport at Kings Park, Durban
The British and Irish Lions gave themselves a mountain to climb in their three-match series with South Africa after the world champions survived a stirring second-half comeback to win a nail-biting opening Test in Durban.
An early try from captain John Smit and four penalties - three from Ruan Pienaar, the other from Frans Steyn - saw the Springboks take a commanding 19-7 half-time lead.
Tom Croft had gone over for the Lions, who lost Lee Byrne to injury, and the hosts were cruising when flanker Heinrich Brussow crossed early on the resumption.
But from 26-7 down, the Lions rallied and a second try from Croft with 12 minutes left galvanised the tourists.
Scrum-half Mike Phillips slashed over with five minutes remaining, Stephen Jones converting both to set up a grandstand finish.
But although the Lions continued to press in the frantic closing moments, the rattled Boks hung on to claim victory.
With the second and third Tests to come at altitude in Pretoria and Johannesburg over the next two Saturdays, the prospect of a second successive whitewash, after the 3-0 outcome in New Zealand, four years ago, is a distinct possibility.
But the Lions will reflect that they looked far more dangerous with ball in hand, should probably have scored another three tries, and their first-half pain was largely self-inflicted.
Their previously dominant scrummage on this tour conceded a welter of penalties, with Springboks prop Tendai "The Beast" Mtawarira mauling Phil Vickery, who departed five minutes into the second half.
Paul O'Connell's men got off to the worst possible start. Jones missed a difficult penalty from the left touchline in the second minute and then they lost their first line-out.
Signs of nerves were everywhere. A booming kick to the right corner saw Ugo Monye dally with JP Pietersen in hot pursuit, but Byrne salvaged the situation.
The reprieve was brief. A wave of South Africa attacks from the ensuing scrum ended with captain Smit powering through Croft's tackle for the opening try with less than five minutes on the clock, Pienaar adding the extras.
The Lions were given an immediate chance to hit back when Steyn dropped the kick-off, giving them an attacking scrum in a promising position.
After two re-sets, Phillips feigned right before number eight Jamie Heaslip went left, and Jones and Brian O'Driscoll combined to send Monye into the left corner.
The winger landed short but his momentum appeared to carry him over, but after several minutes of deliberation, the television match official Christophe Berdos ruled he had not grounded the ball after a brilliant covering tackle from Jean de Villiers.
The Lions, so strong in the scrum on tour to date, then conceded the first of a series of penalties at the set-piece, Pienaar drilling it over to make it 10-0 in as many minutes.
When they did get quality possession, the tourists looked dangerous. David Wallace burst onto Lee Mears' pop pass in midfield, but ran out of support as a try looked on.
Instead the Boks broke away and had an overlap down the left, only for loose-head prop Gethin Jenkins to cut down Bryan Habana in full flight and win a penalty as the wing was pinged for holding on.
Unfortunately for the Lions, Jones pushed the kick to the left of the uprights, and they proceeded to lose another line-out and another scrum, as Springboks prop Mtawarira caused Vickery all sorts of problems.
When Croft was penalised for not using his arms attempting to tackle Fourie Du Preez on the right touchline, Steyn smacked over the kick from 45m to make it 13-0.
But the Lions gained a foothold in the match when the hosts fumbled a line-out and Jamie Roberts barged straight through Adi Jacobs and Pietersen.
The Wales centre fed the supporting O'Driscoll, who cut back against the grain before releasing Croft to stretch over, Jones converting.
Suddenly the Springboks were making errors, Pienaar fumbling Monye's kick, and the Lions had a second try ruled out for crossing when Jones and O'Driscoll combined sweetly to send Tommy Bowe over.
The penalties continued to flow from the Lions though - O'Connell at a ruck, Vickery from another scrum.
Steyn pulled the first one wide, but Pienaar made no mistake with the next and when Bowe was then penalised for holding on under severe Springbok pressure, Pienaar was on the mark again to make it 19-7.
It could have been worse as the Lions conceded another penalty at scrum-time as the half-time whistle loomed, but this time Pienaar was off target from the right touchline.
Vickery, O'Connell and Mears were in conversation with referee Bryce Lawrence as the teams trooped off to the changing rooms, no doubt trying to clarify the reasons for the flow of penalties at scrum-time.
South Africa had just enough power to survive the Lions' fightback
But Vickery reappeared after the interval, only to be hauled off five minutes later as Adam Jones was sent on in his place.
If the Lions were going to hit back, they had to do it quickly, but instead the dominant Boks scored their second try in the 46th minute.
First they drove a maul 40m from inside their own half, and when the Lions coughed up another penalty, they kicked to touch.
Once Victor Matfield had won the line-out, there was a sense of inevitability about the outcome, flanker Brussow emerging from the maul with the ball.
Pienaar's conversion left the Lions starting down the barrel at 26-7 down with more than half an hour left.
They might have gained some much-needed relief when Phillips stretched over after a promising series of attacks, but the scrum-half lost the ball in the act of touching down.
A Lions penalty in front of the posts was then reversed after replacement hooker Matthew Rees, on for Mears, was caught aiming a punch at Habana.
The Springboks proved adept at slowing up ball, and the Lions were reduced to trying cross-kicks to breach the defence, O'Driscoll's knocked on by Bowe.
The Boks kept conceding penalties, the Lions kept kicking to touch or running them, and eventually O'Driscoll put Croft over for his second try with 12 minutes left.
Jones's conversion reduced the deficit to 12 points, and the Lions should have scored again when swift hands put Monye clear, but replacement Morne Steyn forced the ball out of the wing's hands in the act of touching down.
Incredibly though, amid high drama, Phillips arrowed through a gap to score with five minutes left, Jones converting to make it 26-21.
The Lions had their chances in the closing minutes, but replacement Jaque Fourie gathered Bowe's pass in full flow, and a spirited comeback stalled agonisingly short.
South Africa: Frans Steyn; JP Pietersen, Adi Jacobs, Jean de Villiers, Bryan Habana; Ruan Pienaar, Fourie du Preez; Tendai Mtawarira, Bismarck du Plessis, John Smith (capt) Bakkies Botha, Victor Matfield, Heinrich Brussow, Juan Smith, Pierre Spies.
Replacements: Deon Carstens (for Smit, 65, Smit for Carstens, 77), Gurthro Steenkamp (for Mtawarira, 65) , Andries Bekker (for Botha, 57), Danie Rossouw (for Brussow, 52), Ricky Januarie (for Du Preez, 68), Morne Steyn (for Pienaar, blood 65, Pienaar for Jacobs, 74), Jaque Fourie (for De Villiers, 57)
Lions: Lee Byrne; Tommy Bowe, Brian O'Driscoll, Jamie Roberts, Ugo Monye; Stephen Jones, Mike Phillips; Gethin Jenkins, Lee Mears, Phil Vickery, Alun-Wyn Jones, Paul O'Connell, Tom Croft, David Wallace, Jamie Heaslip.
Replacements: Matthew Rees (for Mears, 50), Adam Jones (for Vickery, 45), Donncha O'Callaghan (for Wyn Jones, 68) Martyn Williams (for Wallace, 66), Rob Kearney (for Byrne, 38) Not used: Harry Ellis, Ronan O'Gara
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