The Lions lost in heart-breaking fashion after Ronan O'Gara collided with Fourie du Preez

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In 2005, an ill-fated trip to New Zealand almost damaged the British and Irish Lions beyond repair. Four years later in South Africa, an intrepid group of tourists led by head coach Sir Ian McGeechan restored faith and pride in the concept.

They would eventually lose a compelling series to the world champion Springboks, but central to the Lions’ redemption story was their performance in a truly epic second Test.

Held at Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Pretoria, an imposing cathedral of South African rugby, the match remains among the most dramatic, visceral and downright violent encounters ever staged in the international game.

On its 10th anniversary two years ago, we asked some chief protagonists from either side to look back on a game that swung from the unsavoury to the sublime via sledging and uncontested scrums before ending in gut-wrenching style.

Despite a brave display in Durban, the Lions went down 26-21 in the series-opener. Ultimately, they paid the price for failing to tame the scrummaging prowess of South Africa loosehead prop Tendai ‘Beast’ Mtawarira. Numerous set-piece penalties allowed the hosts’ power to take hold. Although the Lions fought back from 26-7 behind, they fell short. The second Test in Pretoria was do-or-die.

Phil Vickery was left out of the second Test team after the Lions scrum endured a torrid time in Durban

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Ian McGeechan and forwards coach Warren Gatland decided to tinker selection, bringing in tighthead prop Adam Jones and lock Simon Shaw, not even in the match-day squad in Durban, for Phil Vickery and Alun Wyn Jones. Shaw would win his first Test start for the Lions on his third tour, having travelled to South Africa in 1997 and to New Zealand in 2005.

Simon Shaw (Lions lock): “The first point to make is that I never thought that I would necessarily get a start in the first Test. I’d gone out in the knowledge that I was by far and away the oldest guy and I thought I’d be doing more of a ‘tourist’ job – keep going to the end, keep striving for a Test spot, don’t go ‘off tour’. I had done pretty well off the bench during the tour. So, I was still disappointed not to start that first Test and bitterly disappointed not be on the bench. I’d never really air that. I just got on with my job. There was a potential opportunity, although I didn’t think they’d change.”

Sir Ian McGeechan (Lions coach): “Gats and I knew we’d made a mistake in not picking Shawsy for the first Test. We both appreciated how important he was to a team that won things. We both said we should have known better, even if he had not and would have loved to pull a winning jersey off his back.”

Fourie Du Preez (South Africa scrum-half): “As a youngster growing up, first of all I wanted to become a Springbok, then to try to beat the All Blacks, then to play in a Rugby World Cup and then to face the Lions. Getting the last of those opportunities was one of the highlights of my career. Having beaten them in Test one, there was huge excitement around taking the series in Pretoria to ‘avenge’ South Africa’s loss to them in 1997.”

Simon Shaw had impressed during the warm-up games

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Jamie Roberts (Lions centre): “In Durban we’d had issues with the scrum and were beaten around the corner by a physical, physical South Africa side. From 2007 through to 2009, they were the best team in the world – a special team. I think Richie McCaw said it was the best Springboks team he played against. But that also meant it was a glorious, glorious opportunity gone begging.”

Shaw: “The element they were missing in the first Test was a bit more bulk. I heard whispers, first that Adam Jones would come in for Vicks and then that I would take Alun Wyn Jones’ spot. There was nothing more than that, so when it was announced I was blown away and didn’t stop smiling through until kick-off. It always felt as if I had to basically be man of the match for England to win selection for the following game. But I think that was a positive thing. Part of my character is that I am never resting on my laurels so I’ve never seen it as a negative. Otherwise I don’t think I would have gone on playing until I was 40 or rejected offers to play abroad to keep my dream of playing for England alive.”

The atmosphere at the ground was electric, with many of the 52,511 in attendance supporting the Lions and wearing red in the sunshine.

McGeechan: “As much as our performance, the wall of red opposite us signified the link between the Lions and their supporters. It came alive that day, encapsulating what the Lions means to so many people on and off the field.”

The Lions line up for the anthems behind a sea of red

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Roberts: “Loftus is one of my favourite stadiums to play in. I guess it’s what away teams coming to Cardiff must feel like. You see how much it matters to home fans, how much they care about rugby. I was just 22, playing between two iconic guys I’d grown up watching in Stephen Jones and Brian O’Driscoll. I’d done a bit of damage in the first Test and throughout the tour, getting us across the advantage line. I was going to try to do that again.”

Du Preez: “The build-up was massive, and meant a lot to me personally and to all the Blue Bulls players – Bryan Habana, Bakkies Botha, Victor Matfield, Pierre Spies, Chiliboy Ralepelle, Danie Roussow and Morné Steyn – because it was our home ground. A month earlier, we had beaten the Chiefs 61-17 in the Super 14 final on the same ground. Confidence was high.”

South Africa started well initially…

Shaw: “I’ve never watched it back because I think I’d be fiercely critical of any errors I might have made. But I do remember the kick-off. South Africa caught the ball and drove us 10 metres up the field. We gave away a penalty and Bakkies Botha turned to me, laughed and said ‘I thought you were brought in for some muscle?’ I’d always needed to be riled up to get that bit extra out of myself. I’m very, very laid back. Often it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if someone punched me in the first five minutes of a game. I think Bakkies added to the adrenaline that fuelled my performance…”

…but then, with 32 seconds on the clock, French referee Christophe Berdos was alerted to an incident on the touchline by his assistant Bryce Lawrence. Seeing Schalk Burger appear to rake his hand across the eyes of Lions wing Luke Fitzgerald, Lawrence adjudged that a yellow card would suffice. Burger would later receive an eight-week ban.

Roberts: “We could all see it on the big screen and we were all thinking: ‘That is as obvious a gouge as you will ever see’. Then it was only a yellow card. In any game now it is a straight red and a four- or five-month ban. It was a bit weird, but as a player you have to think: ‘Right, we’re away from home, these things don’t often swing in your favour’.”

Christophe Berdos shows a yellow card to Schalk Burger

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McGeechan: “I think he was lucky to stay on the field, but I still think we still had the opportunities to win the game and couldn’t quite do it. A draw might have been a fair result, just because of the quality of rugby played by both teams.”

Du Preez: “I remember it being Schalk’s 50th cap, and that when he got back from the bin we were 10-0 down.”

Shaw: “I’ve been involved in so many games playing abroad and you have simply got to assume that you are not going to get the rub of the green. End of story. Your performance has to be of a level that supersedes that.”

It so nearly was of that level. The Lions kicked a penalty through Steven Jones before Rob Kearney’s try opened up a 10-0 lead. South Africa trailed 16-8 at half-time, too.

McGeechan: “I think people are right in thinking it was one of the best Test matches ever. There was just no let-up. They played well, we played well and there were 10- or 15-minute blocks when you just had to hold on and appreciate what the other team were doing. The Rob Kearney try sticks out to me. I felt some players really came of age that day – Kearney, Adam Jones. O’Driscoll and Roberts were magnificent together in the centre. I still think it was the best midfield partnership in world rugby at the time, despite them never having played together before that tour. That’s what the Lions brings out as a concept.”

Rob Kearney powers over to score for the Lions

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Roberts: “We’d improved massively between the first and second Tests. Some of the collisions in that second Test were just unbelievable and we were winning them. Some of the hits from Gethin Jenkins, Shawsy. You could see the desire within the lads and it felt like a massive thing to be part of a side that was willing to put their bodies on the line for the cause.”

McGeechan: Stephen Jones was superb with his kicking, particularly the late one to take it to 25-25. Mike Phillips remains one of my favourite number nines and I never saw him better than he was in that series.”

Du Preez: “I didn’t know much about Phillips beforehand, but it was a great contest. He did get under the skin of a few of our guys.”

Roberts: “We conceded a couple of seven-pointers way too easily. JP Pietersen went over in the first half off a lineout. You can’t be conceding first-phase tries at that level. We just got our set-up a bit wrong and he strolled in. In a game as tight as that, it was a massive score.”

The body count rose in the second period. Gethin Jenkins was helped off with blood streaming from his eye. Adam Jones dislocated his shoulder after being shunted in a ruck. That meant uncontested scrums and hindered the Lions.

Gethin Jenkins fractured his eye-socket following a clash of heads with O'Driscoll

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Brian O’Driscoll left the field unsteadily following a sickening crash against opposing back-rower Danie Rossouw. Roberts exited four minutes later. Ronan O’Gara replaced him. Meanwhile, Bryan Habana’s try and a penalty for Morné Steyn hauled South Africa to within a point at 19-18 down.

McGeechan: “They were the world champions, and when you realise that they beat New Zealand three games out of three after that series, which they hadn’t done since World War Two, you can appreciate what level that Test match was played at. You can’t on the day because of the disappointment.”

Roberts: “I injured my wrist on about 65 minutes. Jacque Fourie came on a hard line, I got my wrist trapped in front of me and it snapped backwards in on itself. The scan didn’t initially show anything but I had another scan around 10 months later and I needed an operation that kept me out for six months. I played on the next season with this injury that was never right and actually had an operation in 2010. That was savage. I knew it was bad at the time – that’s why I missed the third Test – but the scan missed a complete rupture of the scapholunate ligament.”

Jaque Fourie stretches out to score

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McGeechan: “We lost both props and both centres within five minutes of each other in the second half. That wasn’t easy and we lost a bit of momentum for a while. In the third Test, we moved Mike Phillips to centre and he won us a vital penalty there. Actually, we were going to do that in the second Test as well and ended up not doing it.”

Amid the carnage, an inspired and imperious Shaw kept going.

McGeechan: “Shawsy’s entire impact on the game was phenomenal. One of South Africa’s main strengths was Botha and Victor Matfield. Shawsy took them on. And he was better than them. There aren’t many second-rows in the world that can say they have done that to those two. He and Paul O’Connell were quite incredible that day because of their physicality and their skill. Shawsy is a quiet man who doesn’t say a huge amount, but is a Test match animal. The recognition for that came late, maybe even two Lions tours too late. Of course, he still got 71 caps for England.”

Shaw: “I had a few regrets from the 1997 Lions tour. The England front-five were favourites to start the Test matches, not that I think anyone failed in that series – everyone was playing out of their skin. I was probably immature and didn’t appreciate the magnitude of what the Lions was. I missed out in 2001, then 2005 wasn’t a great tour.”

Shaw carries at Loftus Versveld

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McGeechan: “After the game, I honestly felt that I was looking at the best second row in the world. He wouldn’t take any praise or accolades, of course. All he said was that he would have given it all away to win. That says everything about him.”

Although metronomic Jones levelled the game at 25-25 after Springboks replacement Jacque Fourie had burrowed over, there was heart-break ahead for the Lions. In the 79th minute, O’Gara launched a high kick from the back-field. South Africa scrum-half Fourie Du Preez rose higher than the chasing Irishman and was upended. Berdos awarded a penalty and replacement Morné Steyn won the game for the Springboks from 50 metres out.

Roberts: “I remember their try in the corner, which was a great finish from Jacque Fourie, and thinking ‘this is going to the wire’. Then there was that up and under.”

Shaw: “I have never for one minute blamed Ronan O’Gara for anything. It was always my view that we should have been way, way out in front.”

Du Preez: “Credit to him for keeping the game alive with a contestable high ball when he could have kicked it out for a draw. I had to field a few high balls during the game and I just recall my feet being taken out from underneath me as I went up.”

Ronan O'Gara upends Fourie Du Preez in front of referee Berdos

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Roberts: “That’s just rugby. ROG would have been devastated. He made a decision, didn’t get his timing right and the rest is history. People point the finger but you win and lose as a team in this sport. The decisions might mean more in the 79th minute than they do in the first but we had probably conceded too many points already to win it.”

McGeechan: “Jamie’s right. In a way, that reflected our competitiveness. Had Ronan got up a second earlier after chasing his kick, he could have recovered it and brought us into their 22 with a chance to win it. You can’t criticise a mistake happening because someone is ultra-competitive and only thinking about winning. Unfortunately, sometimes things go against you. The way Morné Steyn had been kicking, a chance from five metres inside his own half on a ground he knows well had a pretty high chance of going over. He still had to do it under that pressure, which you have to respect.”

Roberts: “It was tough for Ronan. I roomed with him later in the tour after that game and it was difficult. Being so young I didn’t really know what to say.”

Shaw: “If we’d have been thrashed, it would have been better, almost – there wouldn’t have been such a shock. But that’s the drama of sport, that’s why people love it so much. You can’t write scripts like that.”

The Springboks celebrate Morne Steyn's winning kick

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There was no time for the Lions to respond. As South Africa celebrated, Shaw was named as man of the match. That brought media duties to fulfil, one interview with Sky Sports reporter Graham Simmons proving particularly emotional.

Shaw: “I didn’t begrudgingly accept the man-of-the-match award – obviously it was a great honour – but I wanted to take it away, get into the changing room and drown my sorrows after five minutes of quiet contemplation. Being thrust in front of the cameras when you are going through those emotions is never easy.”

McGeechan: “The press conference afterwards was interesting. Everyone was still admiring was had happened but cringing at the physicality of it all. There haven’t been many Test matches that have matched it since.”

Roberts: “I’ve never experienced a dressing room like that, either before or since. It was total desolation, silence for 15 minutes. You could hear their fans and the Springboks celebrating. Our sport can be cruel. Just that season, I’d missed out on a Heineken Cup final after a penalty shoot-out. Before that, in the Six Nations, we’d lost to Ireland after a Ronan O’Gara drop-goal in Cardiff. On a personal note, to lose the Lions series thanks to a 50-metre penalty in the last minute was almost a p— take. Four years later I could contrast the feeling in the changing room after the second Test in 2009 to a winning one after the third Test in Sydney.”

Sir Ian McGeechan in the Lions' changing room after the game

Credit: British and Irish Lions 2009: Living with the Pride

McGeechan: “We talked about how it wasn’t the jersey that you put on but the one you took off that reflects what you had done. I remember every single Lion returning to the dressing room wearing their jersey. And they just sat there. There was disappointment and it was quiet, but the players knew they had given everything and for every Lion to still be wearing their jersey showed what it meant to them.”

Shaw: “It’s almost like everything went too well for the final five minutes to happen. Dealing with that in your head, after so much emotion has gone into 80 minutes of ebbs and flows, is pretty tough.”

Rather than attend the post-match function, a third of the Lions’s starters needed medical attention.

Roberts: “There were five of us in an ambulance on the way to hospital afterwards. Brian O’Driscoll’s head was swollen massively on one side – it probably looked like mine does now. Adam Jones’ shoulder was dislocated. It took about two hours to manipulate it back under general anaesthetic. Tommy Bowe had an elbow problem and Gethin Jenkins had smashed his eye socket. Sitting in your kit en route to hospital after that was just brutal. I felt for Gethin especially. The surgeon that was on call turned up after being at the game, maybe in hospitality. He stank of booze and Dr James Robson told him he wasn’t going anywhere near Gethin’s face until the morning. He would’ve ended up looking like a Picasso drawing.”

Adam Jones was one of five Lions starters to go to hospital after the game

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A week later, Shaw and the Lions would get their victory in a dead-rubber in Johannesburg. Despite that 28-9 defeat, South Africa would go on to beat New Zealand three times on the way to winning the 2009 Tri-Nations. Fourie Du Preez and Francois Steyn were nominated for the World Rugby player of the year award, as were Lions Brian O’Driscoll, Jamie Heaslip and Tom Croft.

Roberts: “When Geech spoke the next day and said how proud he was, it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. You think ‘s—. We came so close’. At the end of the third Test, there were lads welling up at Ellis Park. I was welling up and I hadn’t played. The previous six weeks had just been so great.”

McGeechan: “To do justice to the jersey, we had to win the third Test. We gave them three days off. Some of them went on safari, others spent time with their families. When they came back, we couldn’t believe the quality of their training. That was another reflection of the quality of character within the group, and it was led by Paul O’Connell. There was still a question mark about whether the Lions still had a place in the professional calendar after 2005. Winning the third Test reflected the attitude of the 2009 group, the power of their collective togetherness – so did the reaction to O’Gara after the penalty.”

McGeechan and captain Paul O'Connell embrace after the Lions' victory in Johannesburg

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Du Preez: “It was just an unbelievable year for us. After winning Rugby World Cup 2007, our next big focus was the Lions. So the series gave us massive momentum for the Tri-Nations.”

Roberts: “The opposition is massively important for Lions tours. Look at some of the names in that South Africa side – Fourie du Preez, Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha, Bryan Habana. We were a group that only came together a fortnight before we left, if that. It was a massive, massive ask for us to come together, gel and attempt to beat the world champions in their own back yard. Coming so close, on reflection, is still disappointing. The silver lining was winning the player of the series award…and then going on holiday to California and hiring a Mustang convertible for a three-week blow-out!”

Shaw: “A lot of people said that winning that final Test put the Lions back on the map. Our approach to the tour earned back people’s love of the Lions, which was so important.”

A version of this long-read was first published in June 2019