Final flourish leaves Lions lamenting what might have been
Saturday evening, Johannesburg
Amid the euphoria of a record-equalling Lions victory in South Africa, captain Paul O'Connell encapsulated best the prevailing mood.
It struck him, he said, immediately the final whistle sounded at Ellis Park.
No doubt it will continue to gnaw away at the proud Irishman long after the dust has settled on one of the greatest, if not successful, Lions series ever.
"After we have got over enjoying this, we might be filled with regret," he said. "But that is sport. It can be so cruel...We could be looking at 'what ifs?' for a long time."
Saturday might have been the crowning glory of O'Connell's career. He might have been up there alongside the legendary Lions captains, Willie-John McBride and Martin Johnson, in leading a successful mission to South Africa.
But boy, it was some win, and should be a considerable comfort. The way this pride of 2009 summoned such intensity, emotion and élan to their game after the agony of their last-second defeat in the second Test was a staggering achievement.
South Africa had only lost twice at their spiritual home in 19 Tests since their readmission to Test rugby in 1994, and not since France last stormed the fortress in 2001.
But the Lions, much to the surprise of this observer and many others, not only summoned the furies for a third successive week, but produced the same emphatic 28-9 scoreline by which McBride's 1974 Lions beat the Boks in Pretoria.
Heroes were not hard to find.
Full-back Rob Kearney continued to look every inch a Lion, Tommy Bowe again showed what a talent he is, this time at centre, while alongside him Riki Flutey had a huge game defensively as well as creating the second of Shane Williams' tries.
The front five established a superb platform, allowing Martyn Williams and Jamie Heaslip to show off the full range of their back-row skills.
As beaten Boks captain John Smit admitted: "They were all over us in every department."
Every player seeking some redemption for recent woes found it with aplomb.
Phil Vickery, given a chance to assure the abiding memory of his Lions career was not his mauling by "The Beast" in Durban, responded superbly.
The first scrum of the game, when Springboks hooker Chiliboy Ralepelle popped up to concede a penalty, was hugely symbolic, and set the tone up front.
Vickery, the only player left who also featured in the Lions' last Test victory, in Brisbane in 2001, trooped off after 55 minutes to a deservedly warm reception.
Shane Williams, who conceded beforehand he had "beaten himself up" over his struggles on this tour, was a liberated force, coming off his wing to good effect and finishing off his tries like the World Player of the Year he is.
Ugo Monye also unleashed the frustration of his first Test foibles with a clenched-fists roar to celebrate his 70m interception try that took the Lions clear.
It meant that over the series they out-scored the Boks seven-five on tries, and 74-63 on aggregate points.
But O'Connell was not about to take any consolation in such statistical irrelevancies.
"Let's not lose track of the fact they won the series," he noted, adding finally: "That is all that matters."
Certainly these Lions did not achieve their ultimate goal. But the reception as they saluted their army of 30-odd thousand fans at the end told of other objectives fulfilled, not least a resurgence of pride and credibility after the calamity of 2005.
Those marvellous supporters, and no doubt those of you enthralled back home or elsewhere, appreciated the scale of the endeavour, even if they came up just short.
"What these players have achieved in five or six weeks should never be underestimated," said Ian McGeechan, who preserved his record of winning at least one Test on each of the four tours he has led as head coach over the past 20 years.
"They have played the world champions in their own backyard and given as good as they have got over three Tests, in one of the outstanding series I've been involved in."
As for O'Connell, the word he kept repeating time and time again as he pondered the emotions of this Lions experience was 'tough'.
Tough week. Tough series. Tough tour. Tough luck.