Brave Lions roar back to jangle nerves

An uphill task now looks like a moutainous one for the British & Irish Lions who will have to win the remaining two Test matches if they are to repeat the heroics of 1997.

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An uphill task now looks like a moutainous one for the British & Irish Lions who will have to win the remaining two Test matches if they are to repeat the heroics of the 1997 tour after South Africa withstood a spirited late fight-back to win the first Test in Durban yesterday. Inspired by a sense of revenge after the tourists claimed an epic series win 12 years ago, the powerful Springboks were irresistible in the first 46 minutes, establishing a 26-7 lead and looking like they might produce a repeat of the devastating performance that completely overwhelmed England at Twickenham in November. John Smit and Heinrich Brussow scored the tries as the Springboks enjoyed complete domination up front, with their titanic prop Tendai Mtawarira in destructive scrummaging form. But the Lions hit back in a defiant final 20 minutes, with Tom Croft adding to his first-half try and Mike Phillips darting under the posts. But despite a rousing last five minutes, it was too little too late as the Springboks held on. Peter De Villiers' side now march on to Pretoria looking to add a Test series win to their World Cup triumph in 2007.

His opposite number, Ian McGeechan, will have plenty of thinking to do between now and next Saturday, not least at tight-head prop where Phil Vickery suffered a chastening afternoon. Stephen Jones will also be sweating over his place after suffering a mixed afternoon. The fly-half pulled his first two penalties wide of the posts, the first of which denied the Lions the chance to crucially get their noses in front. From then on the Springboks set the tempo. A booming clearance kick from Francois Steyn, the full back, created a golden attacking platform that led to Smit barrelling over after just five minutes. Ruan Pienaar added the extras to complete the dream start for the home side. The Lions came agonisingly close to an immediate response with quick hands giving Ugo Monye a glimpse of the line before a brilliant tackle from Jean de Villiers prevented the Harlequins wing from grounding the ball. But when penalties from Pienaar and Steyn sailed over soon after, the Lions were staring into oblivion. They needed some inspiration and got it when Jamie Roberts and Brian O'Driscoll combined beautifully for Croft to storm over. There was a fresh snap about the Lions' play and they almost worked a second try only minutes later but referee Bryce Lawrence called play back for crossing. But the Lions momentum was halted by two penalties in quick succession from Pienaar giving the Springboks a 12-point lead at the interval. The Lions were under pressure almost immediately after the restart and fell further behind as they crumbled under the weight of South Africa's pack, Brussow rumbling over from a huge rolling maul. The Lions refused to surrender quietly and, helped by the home side making a raft of substitutions, staged a late and spirited rally, spending almost the entire last 20 minutes camped in South African territory. The Springboks defended valiantly for long periods, but had no answer when Roberts and O'Driscoll combined again to send Croft over under the posts. It seemed a lost cause but the Lions, to their credit, kept battling away. Monye was denied a try by another brilliant last-ditch cover tackle from Morne Steyn but Phillips did manage to find a way through the sea of green shirts, darting through a hole to score under the posts to set up a grandstand finish.

With agencies