x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Steyn breaks Lions' hearts with last kick

The local hero holds his nerve in an epic clash as the series is decided in a thrilling finale that leaves the tourists crestfallen.

Morne Steyn's remarkable rise reached new heights last night when he kicked the injury-time penalty which gave South Africa an unassailable 2-0 series lead over the British & Irish Lions. A fortnight short of his 25th birthday, Steyn entered the fray with just 20 minutes remaining, as the Bok coach Peter de Villiers searched for a cure to his side's kicking ills. He then posted two conversions and that decisive 54-metre penalty to seal victory at his home ground, Loftus Versfeld, where he had also guided the Bulls to the Super 14 title earlier this season.

John Smit, the Springboks captain, hailed Steyn's impact. "From the crowd's reaction, we won the game as soon as he ran on to the field," said the inspirational prop. "What a wonderful talent [he is], and hopefully he will win a lot more matches for South Africa in the future.

"We have to apologise for upping the blood pressure of South Africa 20 per cent today. "We are just happy the result came. We have 12 years to enjoy it now." Before Steyn's arrival on the scene, the Boks were chasing the game, mainly as a consequence of errant place-kicking. How they have missed their recently-retired record point-scorer, Percy Montgomery.

Now the Boks' kicking consultant, Montgomery cut a frustrated figure on the sidelines, where he was stationed as a glorified water-boy, as his successors passed up chance after chance. The two players initially given the role, Francois Steyn and Ruan Pienaar, missed out on 11 possible points with the boot. With 20 minutes left, Bryan Habana raced over, giving the local hero the chance to collect his first international points.

The Springboks were in the ascendancy and held the lead for the first time in the match soon after, as Jaque Fourie powered through a limp tackle from Ronan O'Gara out wide to touch down in the corner. The Lions pulled level again via a Stephen Jones penalty, only for Morne Steyn to send over the decisive points from long range. "He probably could have dropped it over from our 22," joked Habana, his Bulls teammate. "He is a special bloke and it was great to see it go over."

Much was made of Schalk Burger's return to the Springbok line-up following a calf injury, but he was initially more of a hindrance to his side. Burger's physical edge had been flagged up by his teammates before the Test as the potential determining factor in the series. Just 30 seconds in, he gave an indicator as to how ferocious he can be with a sinister gouge on Luke Fitzgerald, the debuting Lions wing, on the floor at a ruck. It was picked up by the officials, and Burger was perhaps lucky to get 10 minutes in the sin bin rather than a red card.

It prompted a blistering assault from the heroic tourists, which gained its first reward on the scoreboard in the third minute when Jones knocked over a penalty. They stretched their lead via a Rob Kearney try, as well as the boot of the faultless Jones. However, within seconds of Burger's return, the hosts had a foothold in the game, as JP Pietersen breezed straight through first-phase Lions defence following another towering Bok line-out. They hardly dominated, as it seemed they might after that try, but the scores from Habana and Fourie were enough to set-up the spectacular finale. pradley@thenational.ae