The Lions rallied from a nine-point interval deficit to beat South Africa 22-17 in the first Test in Cape Town.
They celebrated with a dressing-room rendition of Wild Rover.
But for a while in the opening half it looked as if it might be a case of all over for Warren Gatland’s team on the day as they struggled to cope with Faf de Klerk’s box-kicking and the Springboks’ renowned physicality, with their own indiscipline not helping matters.
It was a different story in the second half, though.
Under pressure from the Lions’ kicking game, South Africa began to make mistakes with penalties piling up and Dan Biggar making them pay.
The tourists emphatically won the battle of the benches and their greater fitness told, too.
We assess the winners and losers from a huge game we’ve waiting four years for.
WINNERS Maro Itoje
It probably works best to start with the man of the match.
Big players deliver in big games, and Itoje is a big player.
At times in the opening half, when the Lions appeared in danger of cracking under the pressure South Africa were applying, they were indebted to their No. 4 as he pulled off a number of key turnovers, one of which averted what had seemed a potential try.
The powerful Eben Etzebeth, a worthy successor to the great South African locks of the past, looked to dominate physically and he did achieve a maul turnover at the expense of Itoje.
But the Lion couldn’t be subdued.
Playing like a back-rower, he was on the scene for a momentum-shifting four possession steals. Itoje also swarmed over opposition ball-carriers with his defence and made a mark in the tough close-quarter exchanges. His was an irrepressible and inspirational performance.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man and all that.
Yet after the dust had settled, he did a media interview still in kit looking that chilled he might have just emerged from a Zen meditation session instead of 80 minutes of sparring with Etzebeth, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Co.
He does things differently, for sure.
But he’s some player.
Alun Wyn Jones
Leaders, a wise man once said, always choose the harder right rather than the easier wrong.
And so to the 42nd minute at the Cape Town Stadium on Saturday, when the Lions were awarded a kickable penalty. They were 12-3 down at the time after an unconvincing opening half that had seen them turn around fortunate to be just nine points adrift.
A successful penalty would reduce the gap.
Going for broke by kicking for the flag scoring a try would not only eat into the gap further but also strike a psychological blow and potentially bring about a momentum shift? But, of course, the second option came with a higher degree of risk.
What was it to be, then?
Alun Wyn Jones went for the harder right – and Luke Cowan-Dickie piled over from a maul.
It was to prove the turning point in the game, with the tourists going on to win the second half 19-5.
Leadership on such a scale was one of the reasons Gatland was so keen to see Jones stage his improbably quick return from injury.
The big man had a fine game generally.
Alun Wyn Jones of the British and Irish Lions looks on during the first Test match against South Africa
(Image: David Rogers/Getty Images)
Really, he had no right to be putting his left shoulder to the wheel in a Test exactly four weeks after dislocating it.
But he is cut from different material from the rest of us.
Typically, he shirked nothing in defence, carried willingly and made a telling mark in the thick of the action.
If anyone deserved to lead the Lions to a famous victory, it was him.
The match officials
In any game there will be tight decisions.
But referee Nic Berry and his team appeared to get most of them right here.
TMO Marius Jonker, the South African whose appointment Warren Gatland had reportedly been ‘raging’ about before the game, was bang on with his calls for all three South African claims for tries — unless there’s an angle or two from a passing plane that proves differently.
Two of them were denied and one was upheld.
There was another less clearcut call over whether to yellow card Hamish Watson for a dangerous tackle.
For sure, he could have had 10 minutes to reflect as he’d lifted Willie le Roux above the horizontal.
But the referee settled for a penalty.
But it could easily have gone against the Lions back-rower.
Knowing how to win is easy.
It involves not gloating too much, giving a nod to the opposition for their effort and finding areas to improve for the next game.
Knowing how to lose?
Tougher — much tougher.
There’s a temptation to make excuses, be defensive and even a shade bitter.
But South Africa director of rugby Rassie Eramus didn’t go there on Saturday night.
He could have moaned about Covid, about how his side had had so little Test rugby over the previous two years, about the borderline refereeing calls that interested so many.
But he didn’t.
Instead, he sent a particularly generous social-media post the way of the Lions, saying: “No excuses this side!!
“Your are far away from home and going through same tough Covid protocols like we do!! Congrats and well deserved!!!”
For anyone in any doubt, that’s class.
And 24-carat class at that.
When the going got tough, the tough guy wearing the Lions No. 6 jersey got going.
On any other day, Courtney Lawes would have been named man of the match.
He hit hard in the tackle, carried strongly and stood up to the Boks’ physical challenge.
It was an impressive effort from a player who’d had just one Test start over the previous 16 months.
There were plenty who disputed his selection ahead of Tadhg Beirne at blindside flanker, but Lawes more than justified his place.
Ink him in at No. 6 for the rest of the series.
Lions reserve front row
Nothing flash — from props and a hooker it was never going to be — but Mako Vunipola, Ken Owens and Kyle Sinckler were quietly outstanding for the Lions.
They were up against a trio who were supposed to be ready to push them around the park.
It didn’t work out that way for Steven Kitshoff, Malcolm Marx and Frans Malherbe.
The Lions deputies eclipsed them in the scrums, and all three in red were prominent in the loose. Owens, in particular, brought real physicality onto the pitch with him. He had a ball kicked flush in his face at one point and had a brush with Faf de Klerk at another, but it takes more than such trifles to rattle The Sheriff.
Potentially, he could come into the mix for a start in the second Test.
Vunipola and Sinckler were into much as well.
The trio did their reputations no harm at all.
LOSERS Elliot Daly
Bad days at the office — we’ve all had ’em.
Except most of us don’t have millions watching on TV across different continents at the time.
You felt sorry for Daly.
He received an introduction from Lukhanyo Am on four minutes which almost saw him smashed him into tiny pieces.
There were two penalties conceded by the Lions No. 13, three tackles missed from eight attempts and no metres made from six carries.
On his day he’s a cultured and classy player.
But this wasn’t it.
Not by a long chalk.
The Scot had been parachuted into the starting XV after the late withdrawal through injury of Wyn Jones.
Not ideal circumstances, then.
He gave it a go, but he appeared to have his hands full in the scrum and conceded a penalty. He managed one carry which made a single metre and he made four tackles.
Nothing disastrous, but not too much that was fantastically convincing, either.
Most would agree he is a wonderful player who deserved all the plaudits he received pre-game.
But he failed to put any kind of stamp on proceedings once the action started.
There were three runs that didn’t get far, three handling errors and a hat-trick of turnovers coughed up.
It was a poor return for such a magical player.
The Lions will hope there is no bounce back.
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South Africa’s Bomb Squad
As touched on above, Steve Kitshoff, Malcolm Marx and Frans Malherbe didn’t enjoy their finest hour.
They were supposed to be the heavy brigade who would push the Lions to defeat with their irresistible power in the second half, South Africa’s best three props who had been held in reserve with the express intention of piling on the pressure.
Instead, the Lions outbombed the Bomb Squad, with the tourists’ bench exerting a telling influence.
One game counts for only so much and Kitshoff, Marx and Malherbe remain excellent players.
But Saturday wasn’t their day.