SOUTH AFRICA 28 BRITISH & IRISH LIONS 25, Loftus Versfeld (Att: 52,511)
Scorers: South Africa: Tries: JP Pietersen, Bryan Habana, Jaque Fourie; Cons: Morne Steyn 2; Pens: Francois Steyn, Morne Steyn 2
British & Irish Lions: Try: Rob Kearney; Con: Stephen Jones; Pens: Stephen Jones 5; Drop: Stephen Jones
An early try from rock-solid full-back Rob Kearney had seen the Lions race into a 16-8 half-time lead but a 75th minute converted try from Jaque Fourie set the scene for Morne Steyn's dramatic finale.
The Bulls out-half was brought on after Ruan Pienaar had twice missed kickable penalties in quick succession and he repaid coach Peter de Villiers with an outsanding display with the boot.
Steyn's touchline conversion of Fourie's try gave the World champions a 25-22 advantage before Stephen Jones slotted his fifth successful penalty to level the game with just two minutes remaining.
A draw would not have been what the Lions wanted but it would at least have given them something more than pride to play for in Saturday's third encounter at Coca Cola Park in Johannesburg.
It seemed as though that was exactly how things would end in Pretoria until Ronan O'Gara, on as a replacement during an unforgiving spell of injuries for the Lions, made contact with Fourie du Preez in the air and referee Christophe Berdos awarded a penalty.
Steyn stepped up to break the Lions' hearts with the coolest of strikes from a massive 54 metres out. The kick sealed the Test and series spoils for the Springboks.
While Steyn's golden boot ensured the match ended in severe disappointment for everyone involved with Britain and Ireland's elite, it certainly did not start that way.
Ian McGeechan and the Lions management had talked all week of the importance of a strong opening at Loftus and they got just that as they built a 10-0 lead inside the opening eight minutes.
Having scored 14 points in the last 12 minutes of the first Test eight days ago, the Lions began where they left off in the crucial second rubber.
Jones put the first points on the board with a penalty after three minutes but not before Springbok flanker Schalk Burger had received a yellow card after appearing to make contact with the eye area of Luke Fitzgerald with just a minute played.
While television replays suggested that Burger had been lucky to escape with just a yellow, the Lions made the 50-cap flanker pay for his indiscretion by scoring a point a minute during his time in the sin-bin.
If Jones' early penalty had been met with a huge roar from a passionate Lions support, then Kearney's seventh-minute try would have lifted the roof off Loftus if the home of the Super 14 champions had been fitted with one.
A magical back-handed offload from Jones gave Kearney possession 30 metres out, from where the Leinster and Ireland full-back supplied an impressive finish.
The presence of Tommy Bowe kept JP Pietersen pegged to the left touchline, while Kearney's textbook decision to keep both hands firmly planted on the ball left opposite number Francois Steyn simply guessing as to what he would do next.
Kearney was in no doubt as to his own intentions, however, as he used Bowe's presence to open up the necessary gap and force his way straight to the try-line.
Jones then set the tone for an immaculate kicking display as he sent the difficult conversion straight through the uprights from just three metres in from the right-hand touchline.
The Lions continued to control the early stages, dominating territory and possession, but the Springboks soon showed a sign of things to come as they hit back in some style with 13 minutes on the clock.
Lineout ball just outside the Lions' 22 saw scrum half du Preez drift across field with Pietersen slicing through the first line of defence on his way to his 11th try in South African colours.
Pienaar's conversion struck the far upright from just 10 metres to the left of posts, but the 'Boks had at least reminded their own support exactly what they were capable of.
A second penalty from Jones then re-established the two-score gap for the Lions after Pierre Spies had failed to roll away deep in Springbok territory, as McGeechan's men forced the South Africans to make tackle after tackle after tackle.
The loudest cheer of the half arrived five minutes after Pietersen's try and in line with where the 'Bok wide-man had touched the ball down for his five-point score.
With the 'Boks awarded a five-metre scrum after Luke Fitzgerald had been forced over his own line, the 50,000-plus crowd waited with baited breath to see the outcome of what looked set to be a match-defining moment.
Much had been made of the manner in which the 'Boks had ruled the scrum at King's Park last weekend and the worry for Lions supporters both at home and out in South Africa was that they would do so once more in Pretoria.
Those fears were put to bed in the space of a few seconds, however, as Adam Jones and his fellow forwards drove straight into the influential Tendai 'Beast' Mtawarira, forcing the entire 'Bok front row to stand fully upright.
Referee Berdos blew his whistle in favour of the Lions and a sea of red breathed a collective sigh of relief.
The fact that the Lions would lose both Adam Jones and fellow prop Gethin Jenkins through injury just five minutes into the second period was a huge setback to the tourists as the game was forced into uncontested scrums when the Lions had been surprisingly dominant.
A high tackle from the otherwise impressive Simon Shaw gave Francois Steyn a shot at goal from 45 metres out with 22 minutes played, but the somewhat erratic full-back dragged his effort wide of the left post despite having more than enough distance on the kick.
Instead of the 'Boks closing the gap to five points, it was the Lions who were next to strike courtesy of a close range drop goal from Jones who was on target after the Lions had kept possession for some 10 phases.
A brace of runs from Fitzgerald were followed by two more from David Wallace as the Lions built a platform from which Jones coolly added a further three points to his team's tally.
The tourists look set to enter the interval with an 11-point lead before Jamie Roberts was pulled up for obstruction just inside the Springbok half.
Francois Steyn hurt the Lions this time as he cleared the crossbar with something to spare to cut the deficit to 16-8 with the last play of the first half.
The turning point of the game then arrived 16 minutes into the second period. The moment was not marked by try or a penalty or even a yellow card but through the far more mundane act of a substitution.
Pienaar paid the price for missing two penalty attempts in the space of four minutes and Morne Steyn came on to ensure no more opportunities would go to waste as far as the 'Boks were concerned.
Springboks coach Peter de Villiers was heavily criticised for making a raft of replacements when his side were in the ascendancy last Saturday but he will surely be praised by an entire nation for making the right call at the right time on this occasion.
If Morne Steyn's introduction to the game proved to be the defining moment of the series, tries from Bryan Habana and replacement centre Fourie gave the Bulls out-half the chance to be a hero.
Habana reignited South African hopes three minutes beyond the hour mark with a truly wonderful try that countered another well-taken penalty from Jones.
The 2007 IRB Player of the Year followed Pietersen's first half example by taking du Preez's pass to cut through a Lions' defensive line that had been expertly held by Fourie's strong inward running line.
Morne Steyn immediately did what had been asked of him by slotting the extras, although even the discarded Pienaar would have expected to claim the two points from just eight metres to the right of the posts.
The chances of Pienaar achieving the same result from a penalty under pressure, five minutes later, would have been questionable, but his replacement showed no consideration to the context of the kick in the terms of both match and the series as he brought the Boks back to within a single point at 19-18 after the Lions had failed to roll away in the tackle.
It will undoubtedly be Morne Steyn's contribution with the boot that receives all the headline attentions but, while ultimately overshadowed, Stephen Jones' superb kicking display should not be forgotten.
The Scarlets and Wales number 10 increased the gap to four points through another penalty with 10 minutes remaining as he continued to maintain his 100% record in trying circumstances.
With the Lions having lost centre partners Roberts and Brian O'Driscoll to injury one after another, the 'Boks then capitalised on confusion in a make-shift Lions back-line to take the lead in the Test for the very first time.
Fourie crashed through two tackles on his way to the line as he supplied a truly world-class finish in the right-hand corner following a lineout on the opposite side of the field.
Berdos' call for the intervention of the television match official simply added to the drama in an enthralling encounter as Australian Stuart Dickinson took what seemed like an eternity to rule that there was no reason why the #Boks could not celebrate their third try of the match.
At first sight, one particular replay of the action seemed to suggest that Fourie's foot may have scraped the touchline as Mike Phillips and Bowe attempted to force him out before his outstretched arm could reach for out for glory.
It was an image that gave hope to Paul O'Connell and the thousands of Lions fans praying for Dickinson to bring good news, but it was not to be.
The foot in question belonged to the supporting Heinrich Brussow and not Fourie. The try stood and the 'Boks finally had the upper hand.
Queue the ultimate in composure from the man who almost single-handedly sent the Bulls into this season's Super 14 final at the expense of the Crusaders at this very ground.
A touchline conversion from the wrong side of the field for a right-footed kicker would surely prove beyond even Steyn at a moment of such importance. Not so.
Just as Willem de Waal had done for the Emerging Springboks on Tuesday night, Steyn kept his nerve, ignored the magnitude of the occasion and fired his country three points clear.
It seemed as though that would be that. The 'Boks would hang on for the final five minutes and the series would be over. Again, the game provided yet another twist.
Replacement lock Andries Bekker caught Stephen Jones with a high tackle and the Lions had a shot at at least part redemption.
Jones stepped up ahead of O'Gara and delivered a nerveless 40-metre penalty to level the scores and keep alive the Lions' hopes of avoiding a series defeat with a game to spare.
Any celebrations were cut short, however, as Morne Steyn stole the show with 80 minutes on the clock.
Stephen Jones had kicked 20 points to claim the record for the most points scored by a Lion against international southern Hemisphere opposition but it was his South African counterpart who gained legendary status for at least the next 12 years.
It was an incredible finish to an incredible Test match. For the Lions, though, the quality of the game itself and the role which they played in one of the most memorable contests of the modern era will be little consolation.
McGeechan's roll on to Johannesburg for one final game and with just pride to play for.
TIME LINE: 1 minute - South Africa yellow card: Schalk Burger; 3 mins - British & Irish Lions penalty: Stephen Jones - 0-3; 7 mins - British & Irish Lions try: Rob Kearney - 0-8; conversion: Stephen Jones - 0-10; 13 mins - South Africa try: JP Pietersen - 5-10; conversion: missed by Ruan Pienaar - 5-10; 15 mins - British & Irish Lions penalty: Stephen Jones - 5-13; 22 mins - South Africa penalty: missed by Francois Steyn - 5-13; 35 mins - British & Irish Lions drop goal: Stephen Jones - 5-16; 40 mins - South Africa penalty: Francois Steyn - 8-16; Half-time - South Africa 8 British & Irish Lions 16; 49 mins - South Africa penalty: missed by Ruan Pienaar - 8-16; 53 mins - South Africa penalty: missed by Ruan Pienaar - 8-16; 60 mins - British & Irish Lions penalty: Stephen Jones - 8-19; 62 mins - South Africa try: Bryan Habana - 13-19; conversion: Morne Steyn - 15-19; 67 mins - South Africa penalty: Morne Steyn - 18-19; 70 mins - British & Irish Lions penalty: Stephen Jones - 18-22; 73 mins - South Africa try: Jaque Fourie - 23-22; conversion: Morne Steyn - 25-22; 75 mins - British & Irish Lions penalty: Stephen Jones - 25-25; 80 mins - South Africa penalty: Morne Steyn - 28-25; Full-time - South Africa 28 British & Irish Lions 25
SOUTH AFRICA: Francois Steyn (Sharks); JP Pietersen (Sharks), Adrian Jacobs (Sharks), Jean de Villiers (Stormers), Bryan Habana (Bulls); Ruan Pienaar (Sharks), Fourie du Preez (Bulls); Tendai Mtawarira (Sharks), Bismarck du Plessis (Sharks), John Smit (Sharks) (capt), Bakkies Botha (Bulls), Victor Matfield (Bulls), Schalk Burger (Stormers), Juan Smith (Cheetahs), Pierre Spies (Bulls).
Replacements used: Jaque Fourie (Lions) for de Villiers (55 mins), Danie Rossouw (Bulls) for Smith, Andries Bekker (Stormers) for Botha (both 59), Morne Steyn (Bulls) for Pienaar (61), Heinrich Brussow (Cheetahs) for Rossouw (62). Not used: Chiliboy Ralepelle (Bulls), Deon Carstens (Sharks).
BRITISH & IRISH LIONS: Rob Kearney (Leinster/Ireland); Tommy Bowe (Ospreys/Ireland), Brian O'Driscoll (Leinster/Ireland), Jamie Roberts (Cardiff Blues/Wales), Luke Fitzgerald (Leinster/Ireland); Stephen Jones (Scarlets/Wales), Mike Phillips (Ospreys/Wales); Gethin Jenkins (Cardiff Blues/Wales), Matthew Rees (Scarlets/Wales), Adam Jones (Ospreys/Wales), Simon Shaw (London Wasps/England), Paul O'Connell (Munster/Ireland) (capt), Tom Croft (Leicester Tigers/England), David Wallace (Munster/Ireland), Jamie Heaslip (Leinster/Ireland).
Replacements used: Andrew Sheridan (Sale Sharks/England) for Jenkins (23-30 mins, blood sub), Sheridan for Adam Jones, Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys/Wales) for Jenkins (both 45 mins), Shane Williams (Ospreys/Wales) for O'Driscoll (64), Ronan O'Gara (Munster/Ireland) for Roberts, Martyn Williams (Cardiff Blues/Wales) for Wallace (both 68). Not used: Harry Ellis (Leicester Tigers/England), Ross Ford (Edinburgh/Scotland).
Referee: Christophe Berdos (France)