SOUTH AFRICA 26 BRITISH & IRISH LIONS 21, ABSA Stadium, Durban (Att: 47,813)
Scorers: South Africa: Tries: John Smit, Heinrich Brussow; Cons: Ruan Pienaar 2; Pens: Ruan Pienaar 3, Francois Steyn
British & Irish Lions: Tries: Tom Croft 2, Mike Phillips; Cons: Stephen Jones 3
Seven Irish players saw action as the Lions came within a single score of an incredible comeback during Saturday's first Test against the Springboks in Durban.
Paul O'Connell's men looked down and out at 19 points behind with just 12 minutes remaining but two late scores almost saw the Lions bravely turn the game on its head at the ABSA Stadium.
A Mike Phillips try gave the Lions hope of what would have been one of the most memorable victories in more than 120 years of touring, before Tom Croft grabbed his second score of the match to set hearts racing with just five minutes left to play.
The Lions threw everything at a shocked South African side in the closing stages but ultimately it was the World champions who will take a 1-0 lead into next weekend's second Test in Pretoria.
Tries from John Smit and Heinrich Brussow, together with 10 points from the boot of Ruan Pienaar and six from Francois Steyn, eventually proved enough for the hosts as the secured a 26-21 victory in the opening encounter of the three-match series.
The Lions started brightly but, after Stephen Jones had sent an early penalty narrowly wide of the left-hand upright, it was the 'Boks who were first on the scoreboard.
Francois Steyn's 65-metre clearance took play deep into Lions territory and the tourists found themselves in serious trouble after they lost their first lineout of the afternoon.
A clever chip through then left the Lions in all sorts of difficulties and resulted in a five-metre attacking scrum for the hosts.
Successive waves of attacks from right to left led to skipper Smit powering over from close range to give his side an early advantage.
As well as pushing the 'Boks 5-0 in front, Smit's try brought a huge sigh of relief among the South African support.
An understandable degree of tension had surrounded the Springbok fans prior to their first meeting with the Lions in 12 years but their captain's early intervention appeared to settle those pre-match nerves.
Pienaar added the simple extras from just five metres to the left of the posts as the Lions were given an immediate reminder of the size of the challenge ahead of them.
The men in red thought they had hit back in spectacular fashion just moments later as Ugo Monye dived over in the left-hand corner.
The Harlequins winger appeared to have supplied a fine finish after taking Brian O'Driscoll's scooped pass, 15 metres from the line, as the Lions found space on the blindside of a scrum.
Referee Bryce Lawrence was unable to confirm the grounding so he instead asked television match official Christophe Berdos to give his verdict and, when it finally arrived, it was one that disappointed a passionate Lions support.
Monye was adjudged to have been held up by the outstretched arm of Springbok centre Jean de Villiers, meaning the Lions remained seven points behind.
To make matters worse, the 'Boks were awarded a 22-metre drop out rather than having to defend a five-metre scrum.
Instead of being back on level terms or just two points behind, the Lions soon found themselves 13-0 down with a quarter of the match played.
A missed penalty attempt from Stephen Jones was sandwiched by successful kicks from Pienaar and Steyn as the 'Boks showed just how clinical they could be when gaining any sort of footing in the Lions half.
Despite such a disappointing start to their first Test series in four years, the Ian McGeechan-coached tourists maintained their composure and finally gained some reward for their early ingenuity.
The much-talked about centre partnership of Jamie Roberts and O'Driscoll did the damage, with Croft on hand to provide the telling touch as the Lions registered their first try with 21 minutes on the clock.
Roberts burst straight through the tackles of Adrian Jacobs and debutant starter Brussow after taking a pass from Stephen Jones on the South Africa 10-metre line.
O'Driscoll's supporting angle took him away from the covering Springbok defence, and when he was finally brought down by JP Pietersen, the Ireland captain had the presence of mind to offload to Croft five metres from the whitewash.
This time, referee Lawrence needed no assistance from Berdos as he signalled for a well-deserved five points for the Lions.
Stephen Jones had little difficulty with the conversion from 10 metres to the right of the posts and the Lions were back in the game at 13-7 with 23 minutes played.
A second try almost arrived for the Lions soon after, but Tommy Bowe was prevented from claiming his fifth score of the tour after Lee Byrne was pulled up for crossing as O'Driscoll drifted menacingly across the pitch.
Steyn dragged a long range penalty wide of the left upright as the Lions stayed within a single score, but two successive three-pointers from Pienaar saw the Springboks lead 19-7 at the half-time interval.
If the Lions had plenty to do with 40 minutes left on the clock, they had an even greater task facing them with just five minutes of the second period played.
The reintroduction of laws preventing the pulling down of a maul had been talked about as a possible advantage for Britain and Ireland's elite but it was the South Africans who made the most of the dismissal of one of the game's most-contentious Experimental Law Variations.
Having first won a penalty after driving fully 20 metres, the 'Boks continued to maul their way forward, with the Lions unable to bring a halt to their momentum.
The home side pushed their way over the try-line, with Brussow emerging from the bottom of a pile of bodies to further dent the Lions' chances of working their way back into the fixture.
Pienaar continued his impressive form with the boot as his conversion left the Lions chasing a seemingly insurmountable 26-7 deficit with 33 minutes remaining.
Such a margin may have appeared a bridge too far for the Lions but they somehow worked their way back into contention, with the 'Boks making numerous substitutions and they took their foot off the pedal as captain Smit admitted afterwards.
The immense character and pride associated with the Lions shone through as the game neared its conclusion, with O'Connell and company dominating their opponents in every single facet of play in the final quarter-of-an-hour.
Again Roberts and O'Driscoll, who were excellent in midfield, were the catalysts for Croft's well-taken 68th-minute score.
The Welshman made the hard yards before his Irish colleague put the Leicester flanker through a sizeable hole five metres from the 'Bok line.
Stephen Jones knocked over his second conversion to close the gap to 26-14 and the 'Boks were now clearly on the back foot.
Then, having earlier seen the ball knocked from his grasp as he stretched for the try-line, Phillips pounced from the back of a ruck to reignite dreams of victory at the scene of the Lions' heroic second Test triumph back in 1997.
The Ospreys and Wales scrum half dummied to move play wide before darting backing inside for a timely try as far as the Lions were concerned.
Stephen Jones kicked the conversion to make it a five-point game as the Lions support roared their side on in great anticipation.
Suddenly, the Lions were no longer no hopers in Durban. Instead they were gaining the kind of momentum that suggested an incredible comeback victory might just be on the cards.
Unfortunately, five points remained the gap between the sides when Lawrence signalled the end of proceedings after Andries Bekker won a lineout as the hooter sounded and Ricky Januarie cleared to touch.
The Lions had proved their worth but it was the 'Boks who took the spoils, albeit in a far more uncomfortable manner than they could ever have imagined midway through the second period.
The Lions now know that another defeat is not an option if they intend to leave South Africa as series winners.
The squad travel to the home of the Super 14 champions the Bulls next Saturday and, despite the outcome of this afternoon's clash, they will arrive in Pretoria full of confidence.
McGeechan and his players know that, if their performance in the final 20 minutes is anything to go by, they can more than match the Springboks next time out.
TIME LINE: 3 minutes - British & Irish Lions penalty: missed by Stephen Jones - 0-0; 5 mins - South Africa try: John Smit - 5-0; conversion: Ruan Pienaar - 7-0; 11 mins - South Africa penalty: Ruan Pienaar - 10-0; 16 mins - British & Irish Lions penalty: missed by Stephen Jones - 10-0; 20 mins - South Africa penalty: Francois Steyn - 13-0; 23 mins - British & Irish Lions try: Tom Croft - 13-5; conversion: Stephen Jones - 13-7; 28 mins - South Africa penalty: missed by Francois Steyn - 13-7; 33 mins - South Africa penalty: Ruan Pienaar - 16-7; 36 mins - South Africa penalty: Ruan Pienaar - 19-7; 39 mins - South Africa penalty: missed by Ruan Pienaar - 19-7; Half-time - South Africa 19 British & Irish Lions 7; 47 mins - South Africa try: Heinrich Brussow - 24-7; conversion: Ruan Pienaar - 26-7; 68 mins - British & Irish Lions try: Tom Croft - 26-12; conversion: Stephen Jones - 26-14; 75 mins - British & Irish Lions try: Mike Phillips - 26-19; conversion: Stephen Jones - 26-21; Full-time - South Africa 26 British & Irish Lions 21
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), Heinrich Brussow (Cheetahs), Juan Smith (Cheetahs), Pierre Spies (Bulls)
Replacements used: Danie Rossouw (Bulls) for Brussow (51 mins), Jaque Fourie (Lions) for de Villiers, Andries Bekker (Stormers) for Botha (both 57), Morne Steyn (Bulls) for Pienaar, Deon Carstens (Sharks) for Smit, Gurthro Steenkamp for (Bulls) for Mtawaria (all 65), Ricky Januarie (Stormers) for du Preez (70), Pienaar for Jacobs (74), Smit for Carstens (76).
BRITISH & IRISH LIONS: Lee Byrne (Ospreys/Wales); Tommy Bowe (Ospreys/Ireland), Brian O'Driscoll (Leinster/Ireland), Jamie Roberts (Cardiff Blues/Wales), Ugo Monye (Harlequins/England); Stephen Jones (Scarlets/Wales), Mike Phillips (Ospreys/Wales); Gethin Jenkins (Cardiff Blues/Wales), Lee Mears (Bath/England), Phil Vickery (London Wasps/England), Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys/Wales), Paul O'Connell (Munster/Ireland) (capt), Tom Croft (Leicester Tigers/England), David Wallace (Munster/Ireland), Jamie Heaslip (Leinster/Ireland)
Replacements used: Rob Kearney (Leinster/Ireland) for Byrne (37 mins), Adam Jones (Ospreys/Wales) for Vickery (44), Matthew Rees (Scarlets/Wales) for Mears (49), Martyn Williams (Cardiff Blues/Wales) for Wallace (66), Donncha O'Callaghan (Munster/Ireland) for AW Jones (69). Not used: Harry Ellis (Leicester Tigers/England), Ronan O'Gara (Munster/Ireland).
Referee: Bryce Lawrence (New Zealand)