But no-one could have predicted the drama that was to follow, with a last-gasp drop-goal sealing an unassailable 2-0 series lead at Growth Point Kings Park.
Stream Living With Lions on Amazon Video UK!
It is 20 years to the day since Sir Ian McGeechan’s tourists downed the then world champions South Africa to secure that now famous series victory.
Matt Dawson’s dramatic dummy and try had done the damage in the first Test, but in Durban against a resurgent Springbok pack it was the boot of Neil Jenkins and the finesse of Jeremy Guscott that proved vital.
The 1997 tourists, including Jenkins who is an assistant coach on this 2017 Tour to New Zealand, take up the tale.
Lawrence Dallaglio remembers it as the most physical game he ever played in, Guscott will never forget his drop goal and Jenkins was at his metronomic best on a special night in Durban.
But for all the iconic moments surrounding the victory there is one oft-forgotten fact – the Lions did not actually play the Springboks off the park.
At least according to head coach McGeechan and forwards coach Jim Telfer, who had to endure a nerve-shreddingly close clash at King’s Park.
THE LIONS CLING ON
“I actually thought that a lot of our players froze in that second Test and we didn’t play well at all. We just hung on in there,” remembered Telfer.
“Neil – to give him his due – just kept slotting the goals. We must have been in positions to kick goals because he is not the longest kicker in the world but he is so accurate.”
Join The Pride! Get Lions news direct to your inbox!
Indeed on a dramatic night the Lions were outscored by three tries to none and had to rely on the world-class kicking of Jenkins to keep them in touch.
BOKS STUTTER IN FRONT OF GOAL
By contrast, the reigning world champion Boks could not buy a goal kick – a combination of Henry Honiball, Percy Montgomery and Andre Joubert all tried their luck and failed with six attempts in total – including all three of their conversions.
“People say they didn’t have recognised kickers, they did,” recalled hooker Keith Wood.
“They had really good kickers but they crumbled under the pressure of the series. Whatever it is about the Lions, there is crazy intensity, crazy. And things happen in that sort of pressure.”
After Dawson’s dummy and Alan Tait’s decisive score in the first Test – the Lions knew the wounded Springboks would be out for revenge in Test two.
“You could tell that they meant business from the moment they rampaged down the stand in Durban and the crowd were baying for our blood,” said Dawson.
“From the kick off, the South Africans just ran at us, bouncing people off, it was just this wave after wave of South African attack and you just knew that it was coming but we also knew that they were talented individuals in the backline and we had to defend well.
“When we didn’t there could have been a slight capitulation or a little bit of fear factor and a question mark about what we were doing, but the strength of that team and the individuals and the adversity that we had been through all came out in the end.”
JENKINS RIDES THE STORM
Every single member of the match-day squad played their part in a compelling clash and they had to ride out an early storm from the Boks.
Jenkins then kicked them into a 6-0 lead against the run of play before the late, great Joost van der Westhuizen scored the hosts’ first try.
And just before the break they managed a second, Montgomery the beneficiary this time to put them 10-6 in front at the interval.
Jenkins pulled a penalty back soon after the resumption but Andre Joubert’s score stretched the lead out to six points.
But still the Welsh full-back could not be stopped.
“The pressure mounted with each kick but every time I took my mind away from Durban and imagined myself back on the training field in Church Village,” explained Jenkins – who is an assistant coach on this 2017 Lions Tour.
“Same routine and, thankfully, same result. People always ask about pressure kicks, but that is what goal-kickers live for. You don’t hope the chance never comes, you pray it does.
“The fifth and final penalty was probably the most important of my career, but I approached it as any other and managed to keep the pressure at bay.”
GUSCOTT DROPS FOR GLORY
With the scores tied at 15-15 apiece after Jenkins’ fifth penalty and time almost up, the stage was set for Guscott.
It may not have been the prettiest of strikes but after Wood’s clever kick through had established field position – all the centre’s drop goal needed to do was go over and so it did.
“In the second Test, there wasn’t – other than Jeremy’s drop goal and maybe Scotty Gibbs bowling Os Du Randt over – a huge amount going on,” added Dawson.
“But then there were key moments, decisions, line-outs won, big tackles made that made the difference and spurred us all on and the whole squad had been doing that throughout the whole tour.”
The Lions were back in front and now faced an agonising three-minute wait until full time. But they held on to make a magic memory.
“It will absolutely be one of my fondest memories in my career just because it’s very different when you go down to South Africa in adversity and not as favourites,” added Dawson.
The final word must go to the great McGeechan however; “Of all my rugby moments, the sound of that final whistle in Durban in 1997 was probably the sweetest,” he said.
28 JUNE 1997
SOUTH AFRICA (5) 15, BRITISH & IRISH LIONS (6) 18
Growth Point Kings Park
South Africa: Andre Joubert(T); Andre Snyman, Percy Montgomery(T), Danie van Schalkwyk, Pieter Rossouw; Henry Honiball, Joost van der Westhuizen(T); Os du Randt, Naka Drotske, Adrian Garvey; Hannes Strydom, Mark Andrews; Ruben Kruger, Andre Venter, Gary Teichmann (capt).
Bench: Fritz van Heerden, Dawie Theron, Russell Bennett, Boeta Wessels, Werner Swanepoel, James Dalton,
Replacements used: van Heerden for Teichmann 2, Teichmann for van Heerden 5, van Heerden for Kruger 50, Theron for Garvey 67.
British & Irish Lions: Neil Jenkins(5P); John Bentley, Jerry Guscott(D), Scott Gibbs, Alan Tait; Gregor Townsend, Matt Dawson; Tom Smith, Keith Wood, Paul Wallace; Martin Johnson (capt), Jeremy Davidson; Lawrence Dallaglio, Richard Hill, Tim Rodber.
Bench: Neil Back, Austin Healey, Eric Miller, Mike Catt, Barry Williams, Jason Leonard,
Replacements used: Back for Hill 57, Healey for Tait 76, Miller for Rodber 77.
Scoring sequence: 15′ Jenkins N.R. (P) 0-3, 30′ Jenkins N.R. (P) 0-6, 35′ Van Der Westhuizen J (T) 5-6, 40′ Montgomery P.C. (T) 10-6, 48′ Jenkins N.R. (P) 10-9, 54′ Joubert A.J. (T) 15-9, 66′ Jenkins N.R. (P) 15-12, 74′ Jenkins N.R. (P) 15-15, 76′ Guscott J.C. (D) 15-18.
Referee: Didier Mene (France).