Lions left to lick wounds after epic failure
Pretoria, Saturday evening
Sickening. Galling. Heart-breaking. Take your pick, if you are a Lions fan.
Whichever word you use to sum up the feeling after an extraordinary second Test against the Springboks in Pretoria, it was a horrible way to lose the series.
The ifs, buts and maybes will be debated for many a year, but the harsh facts remain.
This was a seventh straight Test defeat for the British and Irish Lions since that memorable day in Brisbane, 2001, and now a third consecutive series defeat.
After the last time that happened, from 1977 to 1983, it was to Ian McGeechan the Lions turned for their next venture, to Australia in 1989, the first of his four stints as head coach.
Assuming he doesn't stay on for a fifth, his record will read won two, lost two, which given the odds is pretty impressive.
Not that it provided much consolation on Saturday night in the bowels of Loftus Versfeld stadium, as the emotion of a gut-wrenching defeat remained raw.
You had to feel for McGeechan as he reflected, in his dignified manner, that "you have just got to accept it. How heavily it weighs on you now is something that can't be changed."
That weight of disappointment may grow the more he analyses it, for as captain Paul O'Connell acknowledged, this was "another big opportunity lost".
In a match of savage intensity and brutal collisions, the Lions again rattled the Springboks with the speed and width of their attacks after Schalk Burger's crude early intervention, and should have seen the job through from 19-8 up on the hour.
But when they weren't dishing out the rough stuff or kicking poorly, South Africa also showed their subtle side with the delicious angle JP Pietersen cut for his first-half try and the blistering speed and balance of Bryan Habana's momentum-changing score.
Were the Lions unlucky? Probably. They lost both props to injury by the 45th minute, (Adam Jones as a result of a dangerous charge by Bakkies Botha), and both centres, Brian O'Driscoll and Jamie Roberts, by the 67th, when the Boks comeback was gathering pace.
McGeechan argued that key decisions went against the Lions in both Tests, and he had a point.
If touch judge Bryce Lawrence was sure that Burger had made contact with Luke Fitzgerald's eye, as replays appeared to show, should he not have recommended French referee Christophe Berdos issue a red card, rather than a yellow?
South Africa may be a formidable side, but even they would have struggled to play for 79 minutes with 14 men.
If intent is difficult to assess definitively in the spur of the moment, recourse to video technology does not always provide conclusive evidence.
Amid unbearable tension with six minutes remaining, television match official Stuart Dickinson spent several minutes deliberating every angle before awarding the crucial try from Jaque Fourie that put South Africa in front for the first time.
The replacement centre had done superbly to stretch for the right corner, and there appeared to be no definitive replay which showed whether his foot was in touch or not. In such circumstances perhaps he deserved the benefit of the doubt.
Even the decisive last-gasp penalty seemed more of a clumsy challenge by Ronan O'Gara than a deliberate attempt by the Irishman to take out Fourie du Preez in the air.
But the real pity about Morne Steyn's monumental 53m kick, from a neutral point of view, is we have been denied a 'live' Test in Johannesburg next week that this series deserved on the balance of the first two games.
The Lions may limp into it with it several key players missing, making a second successive 3-0 series whitewash all the more likely, but at least they have demonstrated their whole ethos and tradition is in rude health.
After the dismal 'blackwash' in New Zealand four years ago many questioned the entire viability of future Lions tours in the professional era.
But Saturday was a joyous rebuttal of that notion, proving that a team moulded together from four countries in the space of five weeks could still be competitive against the southern hemisphere giants, giving us one of the great Test matches in the process.
A Lions series win remains a rare beast. There have been only four - in 1971, 1974, 1989 and 1997 - in the previous 16 full series they have played since 1950.
So McGeechan took solace in two "outstanding" performances that have brought "a lot of credibility back to the Lions" after the folly of Sir Clive Woodward's overblown operation in New Zealand.
"No-one actually thought we were going to be competitive," McGeechan noted. "But we have been more than that. In both games we have been winners in a lot of respects."
Maybe, but unfortunately for the Lions and their marvellous fans, not on the scoreboard.