PHIL Vickery has hailed the "unbelievable experience" of a British and Irish Lions tour – and warned off those critics who question whether rugby union's greatest institution has a future.
Vickery, who will be 37 when the Lions head to Australia in four years' time, bowed out amid memorable scenes as world champions South Africa suffered a first defeat at Ellis Park since 2001. The tourists' stunning 28-9 triumph equalled their record victory over South Africa, while it also avoided a first series whitewash at the Springboks' hands and ended a run of seven straight Test defeats.
Far more significantly than mere statistics though, Vickery and company ensured the Lions brand will continue to roar. "People can question me until the cows come home about Lions tours, and I will tell them straight – Lions tours should carry on," said the World Cup-winning England prop.
"It is the most unbelievable experience you can ever have as a rugby player. I've been fortunate to achieve some fantastic things in my career, but nothing beats wearing the Lions jersey.
"It's just the ultimate, it really is. I hope and pray that Lions tours continue – they are a very special thing to be involved in.
"A Lions tour has to be slightly different. It has to be a little bit 'amateurish' in that you've got to have a bit of fun and drink a few beers, because you have got to get on with people and mix. You've all got to mix and buy into it, and that to me is what makes it very special. I wouldn't want it any other way."
Vickery's personal fightback from the depths of despair in Durban a fortnight earlier mirrored an immense Lions display. Mauled by Springboks scrum destroyer Tendai "The Beast" Mtawarira at King's Park, he turned the tables to play a key role in dismantling South Africa on a ground where they were crowned 1995 World Cup winners.
And Vickery, whose impassioned pre-match comments to his colleagues left captain Paul O'Connell vowing to steal them for future Munster team talks, admitted it had been an emotional occasion.
"There was a huge amount of pressure on me with what had happened in Durban, and I was actually quite tearful before the game," he admitted. "Adam Jones (the injured Lion Vickery replaced) sent me a message wishing me good luck, and it was nice to come out the other end being satisfied with your day's work. That first scrum was fantastic.
"It was nice to come off feeling very proud of my own performance, but ultimately the team's performance. It has been a fantastic group of people, and I can't say any more than that. You remember the people you play with, and I've played with some superstars on this trip.
"Someone said to me the other day it was going to be my last Lions cap. I won on my first one (in 2001), and that wouldn't it be brilliant if I could win the last one and also get the 50th Test win of my career.
"The whole trip for me has just been fantastic. I can honestly say I have never been on a tour with so many good men.
"South Africa thoroughly deserved their series win, and I take nothing away from them at all, but I felt we just deserved something out of the tour."
O'Connell added: "Phil spoke very well in the huddle. Something he said I will probably take back and plagiarise it with Munster and Ireland. He galvanised everyone around him. We were all playing for each other, and we were all playing for Phil Vickery."
Shane Williams' try double and a second-half interception score by his fellow wing Ugo Monye – plus 13 points from fly-half Stephen Jones – sent South Africa crashing.
France had been the last team to beat South Africa in Johannesburg, toppling them 32-23 eight years ago, but the Lions will fly home today after joining that exclusive club.
Despite showing seven changes following the series-losing defeat in Pretoria seven days earlier – and being without injured talismen like Brian O'Driscoll and Jamie Roberts – they responded magnificently. And the result saw them match the record 28-9 Lions success against South Africa of Willie John McBride's all- conquering 1974 tourists.
The Lions had heroes everywhere, no-one more so than number eight Jamie Heaslip, who provided a towering presence in all areas, while centre Riki Flutey, flanker Martyn Williams and scrum-half Mike Phillips were not far behind. It was a dream way to end probably the most satisfying Lions tour since they last visited South Africa in 1997.
It took the Lions just nine minutes to strike a clear psychological blow when Vickery spearheaded a huge Lions scrum. Springboks hooker Chiliboy Ralepelle popped out of his binding, and Jones kicked the Lions ahead before Morne Steyn slotted an equalising penalty, his first of three in the game.
The Lions, though, were in no mood to take a backward step and struck with a smartly-taken try. Heaslip galloped into space, and delivered a neat inside ball to Williams, who claimed his first try of the tour in probably his final Lions appearance.
Jones should have added an easy conversion, but the ball fell off his kicking tee as he ran up, and his flailing attempt to send a drop kick over failed. There was no let-up in the ferocity, but the Lions struck another telling blow nine minutes before half-time.
It was a try of breathtaking brilliance, all created by Flutey, whose kick over retreating Springboks wing Odwa Ndungane ended with him astonishingly flicking the ball inside one-handed and Williams sprinted over unopposed.
Jones converted for a 15-3 advantage as the interval approached, and no-one could deny the Lions a handsome 12-point cushion.
The Lions, though, had lock Simon Shaw sin-binned two minutes before the break for use of the knee on Springboks scrum-half Fourie du Preez. And Steyn slotted a second penalty on the stroke of half-time, cutting the deficit to nine points.
Tommy Bowe was forced into frantic defensive mode after the break, preventing a certain try by knocking the ball out of debutant Springboks full-back Zane Kirchner's hands. South Africa kept pressing, only for centre Wynand Olivier to see a floated pass intercepted by Monye 70 metres out, and the England speedster collected his fifth try on tour. Jones converted, putting the Lions in dreamland at 22-6 clear and leaving South Africa with a mountain to climb.
Two more Jones penalties rubbed South Africa noses in the dirt before Ndungane was denied a consolation try by the television match official.
Scorers: South Africa: Pens: M Steyn 3
Lions: Tries S Williams 2, Monye. Cons: S Jones 2. Pens: S Jones 3
South Africa: Z Kirchner; O Ndungane, J Fourie, W Olivier, J Nokwe; M Steyn, F du Preez; T Mtawarira, C Ralepelle, J Smit (capt), J Muller, V Matfield, H Brussow, J Smith, R Kankowski. Subs: B du Plessis (for Ralepelle), G Steenkamp (for Smit, 68), D Carstens, S Sykes, P Spies (for Nokwe, 65), R Pienaar (for Du Preez, 41), F Steyn (for Fourie, blood, 24-28, for Kirchner, 56))
Lions: R Kearney; U Monye, T Bowe, R Flutey, S Williams; S Jones, M Phillips; A Sheridan, M Rees, P Vickery, S Shaw, P O'Connell, J Worsley, M Williams, J Heaslip. Subs: R Ford (for Rees, 37), J Hayes (for Vickery, 55), A-Wyn Jones (for Shaw, 67), T Croft (for Worsley, blood 30-34, 66), D Wallace (for M Williams), H Ellis (for Flutey, 55). Not used: J Hook.
Yellow card: Shaw (37)
HOW THE LIONS RATED ON TOUR
LEE BYRNE 6/10
A tour-ending thumb injury meant the Wales full-back's Test series was confined to just 38 minutes in Durban
ROB KEARNEY 8
Grew in stature to such an extent that he returns home as arguably Europe's premier full-back
UGO MONYE 7
The tour's top try-scorer with five touchdowns, who impressed despite blowing two great first Test chances
LEIGH HALFPENNY 5
Delayed entry on tour because of injury – then made a premature exit when the same problem flared up
TOMMY BOWE 7
The Ireland Grand Slam-winning wing made a blistering start, scoring four tries, before fading slightly
LUKE FITZGERALD 6
Started the second Test, but his tour will be remembered for him being on the wrong end of some Schalk Burger skullduggery
SHANE WILLIAMS 7
Kept the best until last, scoring a Lions record-equalling two tries in the third Test
BRIAN O'DRISCOLL 9
Provided an inspirational presence on and off the pitch. The Springboks were left spellbound by his midfield genius
KEITH EARLS 7
Recovered superbly from a dreadful display during the tour opener in Rustenburg. The young Irishman has a bright future
JAMIE ROBERTS 8
A superstar in the making, whose centre partnership with O'Driscoll was a match made in rugby heaven
RIKI FLUTEY 7
Injury hampered his early tour progress, but he took his chance in the third Test with an accomplished effort
STEPHEN JONES 7
A flaky first Test performance in Durban was followed by high-class contributions in the second and third
RONAN O'GARA 5
Never really got going, while he also conceded the last-gasp penalty Morne Steyn kicked in the second Test
JAMES HOOK 7
Looked comfortable in the rarefied atmosphere of a Lions tour. Could be a major player in Australia in four years
MIKE PHILLIPS 8
Aggressive, skilful and wonderfully committed throughout the tour. The best scrum-half in Europe
HARRY ELLIS 6
Had limited opportunities but he played the understudy role well
MIKE BLAIR 4
Scotland captain started poorly, and then quickly disappeared off the radar
GETHIN JENKINS 7
Gave it everything in the front-row before a fractured cheekbone ended his tour a week early
ANDREW SHERIDAN 6
Missed out behind Jenkins in the Test shake-up, but a solid contributor
ADAM JONES 8
Arguably the most improved prop in world rugby. Tamed Tendai "The Beast" Mtawarira in the second Test before a serious shoulder injury laid him low
EUAN MURRAY 5
Suffered a tour-ending ankle injury during victory over the Southern Kings in Port Elizabeth
PHIL VICKERY 7
Recovered brilliantly from a first Test mauling against "The Beast" to finish the tour in style. Magnificent leader
MATTHEW REES 7
Overtook Lee Mears as the Test hooker in Pretoria and Johannesburg. Really raised his game
LEE MEARS 5
Dropped after first Test and then failed to make the 22 in Tests two and three
ROSS FORD 6
Moved above Mears in the pecking order to provide Test bench cover, but Rees was some way ahead as first choice
SIMON SHAW 8
Made his Test debut 12 years after first touring with the Lions, and produced probably the performance of his life in Pretoria
ALUN-WYN JONES 6
Started the first Test, but things didn't quite happen for the highly-rated Wales lock after that
DONNCHA O'CALLAGHAN 6
Captained the Lions in one of their midweek games, but never seriously threatened a Test start
PAUL O'CONNELL 7
Captained the Lions to a stunning third Test win, although his form didn't consistently hit the heights expected
NATHAN HINES 6
The uncompromising Scotland forward collected a week's ban for foul play against the Emerging Springboks. A committed competitor in every game he played
STEPHEN FERRIS 7
Looked a leading contender to make the Test team before he suffered a tour-ending knee injury. But the 2013 trip should give him another Lions opportunity
TOM CROFT 8
Outstanding during the first two Tests, claiming a try double in Durban. Should have another two Lions tours ahead of him
JOE WORSLEY 7
Did a lot of unsung, unspectacular work, culminating in him gaining a third Test start
DAVID WALLACE 6
Won his battle with Martyn Williams for the No 7 shirt in the first two Tests. Solid, rather than spectacular
MARTYN WILLIAMS 7
Made a long-awaited Lions Test debut in the tour's final game, and didn't disappoint. Class operator
ANDY POWELL 5
The strong-running Wales No 8 didn't offer too much more than his trademark route one approach
JAMIE HEASLIP 8
Magnificent in the third Test, and just gets better and better. An Irish back-row gem
Replacements GORDON D'ARCY 6
An early arrival on tour, and had some impressive moments
TIM PAYNE 6
Started against the Emerging Springboks just a day after arriving in South Africa
JOHN HAYES 6
Flew out to South Africa as replacement for Euan Murray
RYAN JONES 3
A flying visit. Summoned as a replacement, but had not suitably recovered from concussion and returned home almost immediately