It seemed fitting that it was Maro Itoje who popped up in the final play to rip the ball free of South African hands and ensure that it was the British and Irish Lions who tasted victory in the opening Test.
The England lock had been a menace even when the Springboks had put themselves into what appeared to be a winning position through their 12-3 first half lead, so it was only right and proper that he had the final say as the World Cup winners desperately tried to rescue a contest that, to them, had mysteriously slipped away.
The truth was that the Boks had crumbled once the Lions had gathered themselves and brought some structure to their game after an opening 40 minutes of highly muted effectiveness from the tourists at Cape Town Stadium.
Indeed the Lions won the second half 19-5 with Itoje’s work-rate being matched, if not bettered, by the physicality of Courtney Lawes with strong showings also being put in by Robbie Henshaw and Tadhg Furlong while Warren Gatland’s bench including Mako Vunipola, Conor Murray, Ken Owens, Owen Farrell and Hamish Watson gradually turned the screw on the tiring Boks.
Dan Biggar has had more authoritative games but his four penalties and conversion of Luke Cowan-Dickie’s 44th minute score – a key moment as it was the launchpad of the tourists’ revival – allowed the Lions chip away at South Africa’s lead before overhauling them in the 63rd minute.
From there, skipper Alun Wyn Jones – who remarkably lasted the distance – and his side closed it out against a South African team who likely thought the contest was all but over at the midway point while they may well also have suffered over the course of the 80 minutes from their lack of match exposure.
In fairness, the Boks will feel somewhat hard done by over a number of Australian referee Nic Berry’s decisions – not least when Watson wasn’t shown a card for taking Willie Le Roux through the horizontal – and by not having had luck on their side a number of times.
And though the Lions made it known that they were less than impressed in having South African Marius Jonker as the TMO, it was his decision to not award a try to Le Roux early in the second half – he was adjudged to have been just in front of Lukhanyo Am’s kick – that actually kept the Lions alive.
The Lions themselves will also perhaps feel hard done by in that Berry failed to brandish any cards as South African discipline disintegrated as the tourists upped the pressure in that second 40 minutes.
Though the game maybe lacked real punch in terms of attacking quality it was, nevertheless, a gripping encounter which sets up Saturday’s second Test as a massive occasion for Warren Gatland’s side who can seal the series with one more win.
It hadn’t seemed that the tourists were heading for anything other than defeat in the opening half when the Lions were severely lacking in accuracy, discipline, firepower and just presence.
Gatland’s somewhat controversial selection looked largely toothless – the half being epitomised by Lukhanyo Am’s smash on Elliot Daly – as Handre Pollard landed four penalties and the Lions resorted to taking a failed shot at goal, via Daly, from over 50 metres out.
With South Africa bringing on their supposedly stronger front row from the bench at the start of the second half all looked set fair for them to close the game out.
Maybe they believed that themselves but, whatever the reason, the remainder belonged to a resurgent Lions.
Cowan-Dickie wriggled over from a maul four minutes in, converted by Biggar, and though Faf de Klerk touched down just before the 50 minute mark few would have believed that this would have been the last time the Boks troubled the scoreboard.
Trailing 17-10, the game now inexorably shifted the Lions’ way. Ali Price’s box-kicking began to cause problems as did the directness of Lawes and some big calls from Alun Wyn Jones.
Biggar chipped away from the tee with his third successful shot coming just after Lawes had surged downfield and the Lions put together an eight-phase attack.
The tourists’ aerial superiority then nearly led to a try from Duan van der Merwe – the South African now playing for Scotland had few issues against a muted Cheslin Kolbe – and though Henshaw’s knock-on would have ruled any touchdown out it was indicative of how the Lions were now dictating the contest.
Farrell kicked a crucial 78th minute penalty after a knock-on from Kolbe scratched out a score from Am when calamity visited the Lions’ backfield which, in turn, set things up for Itoje to extinguish the last-gasp 12-phase attack from a Springbok side that already looked beyond rescue.
Brace yourselves for round two.
BRITISH & IRISH Lions: S Hogg, A Watson, E Daly, R Henshaw, D van der Merwe, D Biggar, A Price; R Sutherland, L Cowan-Dickie, T Furlong, A-W Jones (capt), M Itoje, C Lawes, T Curry, J Conan
Replacements: K Owens for Cowan-Dickie 56mins, M Vunipola for Jones 56mins, K Sinckler for Furlong 66mins, T Beirne for Lawes 72mins, H Watson for Curry 56mins, C Murray for Price 63mins, O Farrell for Daly 65mins, Daly for Biggar 66- 80, L Williams for Van der Merwe 70mins