South Africa delivered the promised bruising fightback and emphatically beat the British and Irish Lions 27-9 on Saturday to send their charged series to a third test decider next weekend.
The Lions, who edged the first test and came to the second with momentum, had a shot at clinching their first series in the republic in 24 years but surprisingly lost control after halftime.
The Lions’ fitness has seen them finish stronger on tour but after the Springboks scored the first of their two stylish tries, their confidence soared and the improving world champions won the second half 21-0.
Lukhanyo Am scored the second try, and Handre Pollard nailed his last four goalkicks to finish with a 17-point haul.
The teams return again to an empty Cape Town Stadium next Saturday in their first series decider in South Africa since 1955.
“We are still building, and we will get better, as long as we stay humble and work hard,” South Africa coach Jacques Nienaber said. “The Lions came with new plans this week, and we adapted to that. This time we were ready, last week we were not.”
The buildup was overshadowed by concerted South African attacks on the first test refereeing, and the message seemed to work. New ref Ben O’Keeffe warned both sides as early as the third minute after their first scuffle, and showed he meant it with yellow cards to each team.
An incident-packed first half was so drawn out with video checks that in real time it went on for 64 minutes, two minutes longer than South African official Rassie Erasmus’ controversial video diatribe midweek. Erasmus continued as a water boy.
“We were happy at halftime,” Lions coach Warren Gatland said. “Second half, we didn’t get anything. No momentum or opportunity to play.”
The stop-start nature of the half helped the Springboks stay relatively fresh, as they gained more significant match fitness denied them by the pandemic.
Mindful of the Lions’ energetic second halves, the Springboks started the new half powerfully with their most fluid attack in two hours of test rugby. A scrum penalty and a driving lineout were followed by a Pollard crosskick caught by Makazole Mapimpi, who beat two Lions to score a try for the lead for the first time in half an hour at 11-9.
Dan Biggar could have regained it for the Lions but his fourth penalty attempt hit the post.
The next big move was South Africa’s, when mobile No. 8 Jasper Wiese was replaced by lock Jood de Lager. With more set-pieces than open play, the extra lineout option gave the Springboks control of the sideline.
An hour in, the Springboks mauled a lineout, and Faf de Klerk’s grubber behind the posts was dived on by Am for a converted try and comforting 18-9 lead. Pollard’s third, fourth and fifth penalties gave the scoreline a deserved margin.
“We did not have a perfect game, next week will be another battle,” inspirational Springboks captain Siya Kolisi said. “Last week’s test was good for us in that it gave us game time. Another week did wonders for us.
“Our focus was intentional this week – we knew what mistakes we made and how not to repeat them. We had the right attitude to rectify that. It started at training.”
But the first half was cagey as the teams conceded few penalties in kicking range. Biggar slotted his three penalty shots while Pollard made two of his three.
South Africa’s world player of 2019, flanker Pieter-Steph du Toit, walked off after the first quarter after apparently injuring his shoulder in a late tackle by Duhan van der Merwe. The South African-born wing’s over-exuberance got him in trouble moments later when he tripped opposite Cheslin Kolbe.
But Kolbe joined him in the sin-bin two minutes later for taking out an airborne Conor Murray. The yellow card could have been indisputably red.
Without du Toit, South Africa lost two consecutive lineouts. That encouraged the Lions to skip a kickable penalty for a corner lineout that was cleaned up by Maro Itoje for an attacking scrum.
Murray was flattened by de Klerk but after receiving medical attention and missing a few rucks, Murray got up in the same play to chip over the defense. Robbie Henshaw caught it beside the posts but Kolisi made the most important of his team-leading 14 tackles by getting his arm under the ball to prevent a try.
After claiming he wasn’t respected by the ref last weekend, Kolisi and the Springboks got plenty of respect on Saturday and kept the series alive.