Alun Wyn Jones made no apologies for bearing his emotions after The British & Irish Lions experienced a heartbreaking last-gasp series defeat to the Springboks.
The tourists were well positioned to win their first series on South African soil since 1997 at half-time in the deciding Test, leading 10-6 thanks to Ken Owens’ first-half try.
But the world champions hit back through Cheslin Kolbe’s score before Morne Steyn and Finn Russell traded penalties to leave the scores tied going into the closing minutes.
Steyn then stepped up to deliver the decisive blow with two minutes to play – just as he had done in 2009 – as the Springboks made it back-to-back series wins over the Lions.
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And having also been on the wrong side of that series 12 years ago, four-time tourist and Lions captain Jones admitted the 19-16 defeat was tough to take after a Tour like no other.
“I probably got a bit emotional after the game, on two counts,” he said. “One, a Lions Tour is very special and particularly over the last 18 months or two years, the jeopardy it’s faced from the global situation.
“Even to be out here has probably meant more to a lot of people. We spoke about the Autumn Nations Cup and Six Nations, going through the lockdown and being able to partake in our sport.
“And we’ve been able to do this in South Africa, which is obviously facing its own Covid struggles. To be out here and be part of this. It’s been a very different but special Tour.
“To fall short hurts more than if it was a bigger loss. We fully understand the significance of this Tour, particularly as it’s four years until the next one and 12 until we come back to South Africa.”
He added: “I remember watching Jenks in ’97 so to being involved with him with Wales and to be out here with him is really special. Probably can’t put it into words so I’m not going to try.
“You’ll probably get me going, I’ve already had a bit of stick for being over emotional. But I don’t care if people think I’m over emotional, that’s what it means to me.”
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The Lions turned down penalty opportunities several times as they attempted to pile the pressure on their hosts with driving mauls – just as they had done so successfully for Owens’ try.
But while the tourists were left to rue those missed opportunities by the time the final whistle was blown, Jones said it is all too easy to say they made the wrong decisions in hindsight.
“We’re obviously disappointed with the final result but proud of the performance in a lot of areas considering what was said after the second Test,” he said.
“The two big ones were the maul in the similar position we scored the first one and I think Josh [Adams] was in had the ball gone. But that’s all hindsight and we were still in it to the death.
“You get into the latter stages of those games, start trading the threes and the game breaks up because of the penalties and it’s hard to gain control.
“I thought we weathered the storm early in the second half and got into the arm wrestle which we were in for nigh on 79 minutes. Credit to South Africa, they won the game.”
Jones recovered from a dislocated shoulder sustained in the pre-Tour victory over Japan to start all three Tests in South Africa and take his record to 12 consecutive Lions Tests.
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That moves the Welsh icon alongside Graham Price and Mike Gibson in the list of most Lions Test appearances, prompting Jones to reflect on what wearing the famous red jersey has meant to him.
“We had our opportunities, particularly in the first half,” he continued. “I’m never going to put this jersey on again, I’m never going to have that chance again, but credit to South Africa.
“I made a point to the guys when we came together on the pitch after the game and said whoever’s on the next one, make sure you go as hard as hell as it’s a privilege to be involved in.
“It’s a big element of rugby that gives a lot of people across the globe something to look forward to. It’s up there with all those international competitions, World Cups, it’s very special.”