This was a performance from the tourists filled with far more ambition and quality than the display of seven days ago and Finn Russell had a huge part in that. The Scotland stand-off replaced the injured Dan Biggar after only 11 minutes and performed with skill and maturity. Ultimately, though, the Lions just fell short and their decisions - in both halves - to kick for the corner rather than take the points will be one they will look back on with some regret.
The visitors used the gambit on four occasions but it produced only one try.
The hosts prevailed thanks to Steyn’s 78th-minute penalty, a gut-wrenching moment for the Lions as the 37-year-old also sealed their fate on the 2009 tour. They can now add a series win to their World Cup success, quite a coup for Jacques Nienaber and Rassie Erasmus.
The tourists of 2021 now join the sides of 1930 and 2001 as Lions squads who won the first Test but blew the series. An ignominious accolade, for sure.
The match ebbed and flowed and was worthy of its billing as a decider, going some way to dispel the memory of the turgid second Test. Cheslin Kolbe, a quiet presence in the first two matches, produced a moment of magic for South Africa’s try after Ken Owens had touched down for the Lions from a lineout maul.
There was early drama when Warren Gatland’s side were forced into a reshuffle when Biggar injured his knee trying to tackle Lukhanyo Am.
Russell took to the field with a wink and a smile, looking utterly home on the big stage, and he soon found his groove.
Pollard had given the hosts the lead with a penalty but Russell quickly had the Lions back on terms, slotting over a 36-metre penalty in the 15th minute after the Boks had been penalised at the scrum.
Franco Mostert was off the pitch at this point to receive treatment for a cut following a clash of heads with Liam Williams and the Lions continued to push home their dominance.
Alun Wyn Jones eschewed a kickable penalty, instructing Russell to punt to the corner instead. The gamble was rewarded with the first try of the match as the visitors worked the lineout maul for Ken Owens to touch down.
Russell, who converted from wide on the left, was at the heart of all the Lions’ best moves, uncorking a kick-pass here and a dummy there as he sought to unpick the South African defence..
His flat pass to Williams down the narrow channel on the right looked to have created a two-on-one in the Lions’ favour but the full-back couldn’t get the pass away to Josh Adams outside him.
The tourists were playing with a verve previously unseen in the Test series and the only worry was that they didn’t have the points their dominance deserved.
Bossing the set-piece, and with Russell pulling the strings, the Lions were in control. Alun Wyn Jones went on the charge and offloaded for Maro Itoje only for the latter to be penalised for not releasing.
A scrum penalty against the Lions gave the Springboks a route back ionto the game and Pollard dispatched the kick to reduce the lead to 10-6 with five minutes of the half remaining.
The Lions were continuing to turn down kicks at goal in favour of going for the corner but they were getting no more joy from the lineout drive and ended the half with scant reward for their control.
South Africa returned after the break with renewed determination and quickly set up camp in the Lions half but Pollard was uncharacteristically wasteful with the boot, missing two penalties you would have banked on him landing.
The second penalty was given for a high tackle by Russell on Kolbe and it was a heart in the mouth moment for the stand-off. Mathieu Raynal decided that the South African winger had slipped as Russell’s arm connected with his face and the referee kept his cards in his pocket - but only after a consultation with the TMO.
If that was respite for the Lions, it didn’t last long. Kolbe had been relatively quiet in the Test series but he only needs a yard of space to work his magic and he put the Springboks ahead with a splendid try after 55 minutes.
An Ali Price up and under saw the ball bounce around off various limbs but, crucially, it was deemed that the ball had not gone forward when it came off Jasper Wiese’s arm.
Lukhanyo Am plucked it out of the air and played in Willie le Roux who drew the tackle from Jack Conan before slipping in Kolbe. The winger did the rest, stepping inside a despairing tackle from Williams, then leaving Luke Cowan-Dickie in his wake as he touched down. Pollard’s conversion put the Boks 13-10 ahead but the lead lasted only six minutes.
The Lions drew level when Wiese was penalised for a late challenge and Russell was spot on with a penalty from 44 metres.
The introduction of 37-year-old Morne Steyn was an ominous reminder of past failings in South Africa for the Lions and the veteran fly-half edged the Boks back in front with a long-range penalty.
With 12 minutes remaining Conor Murray won a penalty for the Lions who then made the huge call of kicking for the corner. The lineout maul didn’t work on this occasion, however, and the Lions tried to force their way over from close range with a series of pick and goes. The home side were solid in their defence and the Lions were repelled.
Henshaw then gave the tourists a lifeline, producing a lovely sidestep to gain some precious yards and tempting Am into giving away a penalty.
There was no kicking for the corner this time and Russell slotted over the penalty to make it 16-16 with seven minutes remaining.
But the final act was to belong to Steyn and 12 years after he clinched the 2009 Test series against the Lions he did it again, landing a 78th-minute penalty to give South Africa a three-point win.