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Simon Austin | 14:23 UK time, Sunday, 5 July 2009

Springbok euphoria was replaced by simmering resentment in the aftermath of their series win over the British and Irish Lions.

The world champions had expected to receive accolades and congratulations after beating the tourists for the first time in 19 years.

Instead, the final week of the tour was dominated by discussions about eye gouging, suspensions and the bad luck of the Lions.

This, allied with a thumping 28-9 defeat, explained why skipper John Smit looked so glum as he fielded questions at the end of the third Test.

South Africa's players wait on their tryline after conceding in the third Test

With the dust now settled on the series, it seems a good time to evaluate this Boks team.
Morne du Plessis - who faced the Lions as a player in 1974 and as captain in 1980 before managing the Springboks when they won the World Cup in 1995 - says this side should go down in history as one of South Africa's greatest.

"It's always dangerous to compare eras, but this is certainly one of the best Springbok teams of all time," Du Plessis told me.

"First of all, it is a magnificent achievement to add a winning Lions series to a World Cup win. I also think great teams are the ones who can pull something out of the bag when things aren't going their way. That's certainly what they have done in this series.

"The tide was turning against them in the first Test, but they regrouped and held on for victory. And for 74 minutes of the second Test, I just couldn't see them winning. Sheer will to win and individual brilliance pulled them through."

The Boks are also blessed with several world-class players capable of turning a game with a moment of brilliance, argues Du Plessis.

"The tries they have scored in the series have been excellent and they have so many players who can create something magical. Look at Bryan Habana, JP Pietersen, Jean de Villiers and Fourie du Preez, each of whom has been a match breaker against the Lions."

Although the Lions have argued they could have won the series, you could also make a case for saying the Boks should have won the first two Tests even more convincingly.

They were superb for the first hour in Durban, blowing the Lions away with a combination of pace, power and fierce intensity. Then coach Peter de Villiers made seven changes in the final 25 minutes - including captain Smit after 65 minutes, talisman Bakkies Botha after 57 and midfield fulcrum De Villiers after 57 - and the momentum swung the way of the Lions.

Only the reintroduction of Smit, with three minutes to go, settled South African nerves.
In the second Test in Pretoria, the sin binning of Schalk Burger after 30 seconds seemed to unsettle the world champions and the Lions took a decisive lead.

The Boks' desire then came to the fore again and they were relentless in the final quarter, although it did take a long-range penalty from Morne Steyn to clinch the series victory.

Fourie du Preez has enjoyed a fine series

So how many South African players have emerged from the series with their reputations enhanced? Fourie du Preez has certainly augmented his status as the finest scrum-half in world rugby after being a thorn in the side of the Lions throughout the three games.

The 27-year-old Blue Bulls player is fast, physical and has the creative skills of a 10.
Botha and Matfield were imperious in the line-out and ferocious in the tight and must be the best second-row partnership in the game, while hooker Bismarck du Plessis emphasised what a physical, athletic player he is.

Habana looked back near his devastating best, and on the other wing Pietersen proved solid in defence and impressive in attack, when he got his hands on the ball. Others failed to convince. Number eight Pierre Spies, who looked a superstar in the making during the Super 14 competition, had a limited impact against the Lions.

And the Boks have yet to find a fly-half who truly convinces. Ruan Pienaar produced a fine all-round display behind a dominant pack in the first Test, but when the Lions were on top in Pretoria he struggled to control the game and was shaky in front of goal.

Morne Steyn showed an icy nerve to kick the series-winning penalty after replacing Pienaar at Loftus Versfeld before struggling as a starter at Ellis Park a week later. Elsewhere, centre Jean de Villiers and flanker Juan Smith, who are both normally world class, were slightly below their stunning best.

Doubts also remain about the style of play that best suits the Boks. When appointed, De Villiers vowed to unleash the attacking instincts of Habana and co. Eighteen months on, this has not happened and it was revealing that Pienaar passed the ball only three times during the game in Durban.

There are also lingering doubts about De Villiers himself. He was heavily criticised for making so many substitutions in Durban and his dealings with the media have been fractious.

Now the Boks have 10 days off before resuming training ahead of their Tri-Nations opener against New Zealand. Smit is adamant the best is yet to come from the side.

"There is so much more to come from this team," he said. "This side is young enough to go through to the next World Cup and with the talent we have, we would be naïve not to think we can win the Tri Nations."

Young hopefuls Zane Kirchner, Jongi Nokwe and Ryan Kankowski disappointed in the first Test though, which must lead to concerns about some of the established stars moving to Europe.

John Smit has grown into a superb leader

Frans Steyn has already agreed to join Racing Metro, De Villiers is strongly linked with Munster and Fourie with Clermont Auvergne. Other stars, like Matfield, turned down lucrative offers abroad only because they were so desperate to face the Lions.

The two players the Boks can least afford to lose are probably captain Smit and lock Botha. Smit admitted his side sorely missed Botha in the third Test. "We need to fill the gaps which a guy like Bakkies leaves behind," he said.

As for the skipper himself, who is on the verge of becoming the most capped international captain of all time, De Villiers said: "His aura makes him irreplaceable as a leader.

"We have to keep him part of the set-up for as long as possible."


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