IT IS simpler, easier, when you lose by a wide margin. There can be no complaints, no recriminations, no agonised reflections on what might have been.

But, having lost the decisive Test against South Africa by a mere three points, 19-16, the British & Irish Lions will always be haunted by thoughts of how things could have turned out differently. The Springboks deserved to win Saturday’s match in Cape Town, and to win the series 2-1. Yet the tourists, having put in so much effort in circumstances that were uniquely trying because of the pandemic, can rightly reflect on how easily an alternative outcome might have arisen.

“It’s been very, very different, but a special tour,” Lions captain Alun Wyn Jones reflected at the end of his 12th and surely final Test in the famous red jersey. “And to fall short probably hurts more than if it was a bigger loss. I’m obviously disappointed with the final result, but proud of the performance in a lot of areas, considering what was said after the second Test.”

The Lions certainly played better than in that Test, thanks in large part to Finn Russell coming off the bench early in the game and getting his attack playing actual running rugby. And the Springboks behaved better than they had done then, when their 27-9 victory was marred by slow play and the gamesmanship of their director of rugby, Rassie Erasmus. 

But given what happened in that match, and indeed in the first Test, which the Lions won 22-17, you have to wonder what would have happened if Russell had played in all three games. The Scot was not available for the first two as he recovered from an achilles injury, and of course Lions head coach Warren Gatland might not have selected him in any case, given his preference for a conservative game plan.

As it was, Russell came closer than anyone to inspiring the Lions to victory. They certainly should have been further ahead at half-time than 10-6, and a bigger lead would have stretched the Springboks, opening up their defence for players such as Duhan van der Merwe to exploit. Instead, a couple of errors proved costly.

The first time Russell kicked a penalty to touch instead of going for goal, it paid off, with hooker Ken Owens scoring from a lineout maul. But when the same thing was attempted again, the pack failed to bring it off. And, when full-back Liam Williams had tour top try-scorer Josh Adams unmarked outside him, he went on his own instead of passing to the winger.

Jones admitted that both had been gilt-edged chances to give his team a greater lead, but he insisted the Lions still had enough of the ball in the second half to have won the game. “Obviously there was two big ones,” he said when asked about the chances that went abegging. “We had the maul in a similar position where we scored the first one, and I think Josh was in, had the ball gone. But that’s all hindsight. We were still in it to the death. 

“I thought we weathered the storm, really, in the second half, and then got into the arm wrestle, which we were in for nigh on the 79 minutes. We had our opportunities in the first half, and credit to South Africa for playing the way they do and grinding the win out.”

There was a bit of artistry among the grind, too: more than a bit in the case of Cheslin Kolbe, whose magical try put his team back in front. That made it four Springboks tries over the series, all from their backs. The Lions’ two scores, by contrast, came from their hookers, Luke Cowan-Dickie having touched down in the first Test.

The match was far from over after that Kolbe try, but the home side did not fall behind again. Although Russell twice got the Lions back on terms, the last word went to substitute Morne Steyn, whose penalty about 90 seconds from time decided a contest that had been in the melting pot for so long.

That’s what it came down to for the Lions. Six weeks together in a bio-bubble, without family and friends, without the usual legion of supporters, and it all ended in defeat.

So was it all for nothing? They now have to wait four years before their next tour, to Australia, and long before then the arguments will begin again about whether there is a place for the Lions in the modern professional game. Unsurprisingly for a man who has played those dozen Tests over the same number of years for the team, Jones, for one, is convinced that there is.

“It’s a big element of rugby that gives a lot of people across the globe something to look forward to,” he said. “It’s up there with all those international competitions and Rugby World Cups. It’s a very special thing and if rugby were to lose it, I think it would be a travesty.”