The Lions fought back gutsily to score a famous come-from-behind 23-20 Vodacom Super Rugby win over a Reds team that will surely head away from Ellis Park wondering what might have been on their tour had it not been for the role played by South African referees in both games played here.
Courtnall Skosaan wriggled over for the winning try with just a few minutes to play to cap an astounding fightback.
The Reds, who dominated the territory battle in the first half and also enjoyed the better quality possession, led 20-3 at one stage and 20-6 at halftime, so the Lions' second-half fightback was one of the astounding achievements of the modern rugby age.
However, no neutral observer could possibly have let this match pass without being as equally as astounded by the massive role played by referee Stuart Berry in the home team’s win, and for the second successive week a match at Ellis Park ended with questions about how it might have been had it not been for some highly questionable decision making from the match officials.
The Reds felt they were on the wrong side of the whistle of Lourens van der Merwe in Durban the previous week, but this time they looked even more bewildered as Berry whistled them up with impunity during a second half which ended with the Reds down to 13 men because of yellow cards dished out to James Hanson and then Jake Schatz in the final 10 minutes.
With a two-man advantage and trailing by just four points the Lions actually made heavy weather of winning the game, as a series of penalty opportunities were used to either try and force over from a scrum or a lineout without them getting it right.
But each time they looked like the Reds had survived the onslaught, like when Will Genia turned the ball over (what was that one about?), the whistle would blow to indicate another penalty that kept them pinned near the line until eventually, almost inevitably, Skosaan weaved over after a lineout that the Reds claimed was thrown in skew.
However, while no-one likes to see a game reduced to 15 men against 13 (no doubt in Brisbane there will be those who would argue it was 16 against 13), the Lions still deserve massive credit for their never-say-die attitude and the way they turned around what early in the game looked like being The Quade Cooper Show.
Franco van der Merwe, usually the main source of Lions lineout possession, was injured in the seventh minute, and the Reds capitalised by dominating the first half lineouts.
Although the ball the Lions got from the scrums was not always comfortable ball, it was a different story in that phase to the lineouts, with the Lions scrumming unit becoming increasingly dominant the longer the game lasted.
The Lions, forced to play under intense pressure, were not good in the first half hour, with passes being dropped and misdirected.
The problem was that most of their ball was back-foot ball, with the Reds doing most of the playing, and halfbacks Will Genia and Cooper keeping the Lions pinned in their own 22.
The Reds’ dominance in the opening minutes was quickly translated into a three pointer from Cooper, and then in the eighth minute the flyhalf kicked a ball through after dispossessing a Lions player in the tackle and was then on hand to take the pass that put him clear down the left flank for a try that he converted.
It was 10-0 to the Reds and there hadn’t even been that many minutes in the game to that point.
Marnitz Boshoff doesn’t miss place-kicks very often and his boots were laced on firmly in this game, as he took his personal tally for the season beyond the 100 point mark.
He was on the mark with one in the 12th minute to cut the deficit to 10-3, but the Reds extended the lead back to 10 points through another Cooper penalty three minutes later.
Actually the Lions would have been pleased that one was only a three pointer, for on the initial evidence it appeared that replacement Dom Shipperly had scored a good try only for the TMO to, rightly on this occasion, adjudge that the ball had gone forward from Reds captain James Horwill’s hands off a Lions player at a ruck.
Berry rightly pinned the Lions though for playing the ball in the ruck.
The Lions appeared to settle after that, but were still pinned for most of the time in their own half of the field, and it wasn’t a huge surprise when the Reds extended their lead through Cooper’s second try, which came courtesy of some great continuous rugby that featured impressive and quick recycles as well as passes through the tackle before eventually the Lions just ran out of tacklers.
Cooper’s conversion made it 20-3 and it looked as though the Lions were in for a long night. That this would not be the case started to become apparent before halftime, with the Lions’ scrumming dominance sounding an ominous warning to the Australians that they were coming back into the game.
And so it proved, with Boshoff kicking the penalty in the 52nd minute that took him into three figures, and thereafter came a long sequence of Lions penalties that the home team opted to either kick for touch or play off the scrum.
For a while it looked as though they might pay for not kicking for posts, with at least four kickable opportunities being eschewed, but all the while, possibly due to the altitude factor and also due to them gaining in confidence, the Lions were starting to look progressively more dangerous on attack.
A brilliant run from his own half that included a little chip and gather from scrumhalf Faf de Klerk was possibly the real momentum shifter in the game, for although the Lions didn’t score from it, they always seemed to have the ascendancy and to be the team attacking after that as a stream of possession came their way.
It was an impressive driving maul that cleared the space for the try that was scored by the powerful Lions wing Lionel Mapoe bursting through two Reds tacklers to thrust over the line from close range with a quarter of an hour to go.
Boshoff, as he always is, was on target with the conversion, and suddenly it was a four point game and the Reds were hanging on.
It really was a thrilling and pulsating finish, with the match being one of the most entertaining of the season, so it was a pity that the refereeing played such a big role in determining the end result and thus left a slightly bitter taste on something that should really have been so sweet from a South African viewpoint.