In the end, it was all a little bit tame. The Lions came to Durban, on the back of six victories and with confidence abounding, and were beaten 26-21 by the Boks.
There was fight at the death, and high drama as the tourists produced a super final quarter to narrow the gap to within a score. But the game had long been lost in a dreadful first half - in reality, it was the multiple changes that stumped the Boks' rhythm and nearly cost them their win, rather than any inherent superiority.
What on earth happened early on though? The scrums, so talked up as the focal point of the Lions efforts, so derided in southern hemisphere teams as being devoid of the necessary technique and strength, were annihilated. Phil Vickery alone on five occasions crumpled like a milk carton under an elephant's foot against Tendai 'Beast' Mtawarira. The Boks got six points from that alone.
The line-outs were always going to be difficult, but after losing two of the first four the Lions simply gave up kicking for touch and kicked down the sidelines instead, playing right into the hands of the big-booted Bok full-back Frans Steyn, who returned the kicks with interest.
The Boks were a yard faster to the breakdown every time, with the Lions often caught looking on and willing the carrier to break the line rather than heading off in support. It was a classic team freeze. A choke straight from the Greg Norman school of choking. It was ruthlessly punished by a clinical home side that looked fresh, hungry and together. Underdone? Not a bit of it. This was a champion team of near-limitless experience performing to its absolute prime.
The Lions may point with frustration at the officiating, which absolutely did not go their way until a frantic final quarter in which everything seemed to go the Lions' way. They can point to two well-taken tries, two more TMO calls and Ugo Monye's drop of the ball in a tackle with the tryline begging. There are bright spots for a team that needs to grow together still further. They will point with fury too, at the farce that allowed John Smit back on after he had previously been substituted - that has to warrant an investigation.
But they must also reflect that for the first hour the Boks made their own luck with the officials and however well the Lions fought back, there was far too much to do. There are deficiencies all over the park that the Lions will have to address next week in Pretoria, in rucks, at scrums, with the boot and in attack with the ball in hand.
The faint hope for the Lions fans might have been that half-time could precipitate one of those miracle turnarounds. Fat chance. Within five minutes of the second half starting, the Boks pack had driven two mauls a combined total of 35 metres and scored their second try through Heinrich Brüssow. If Lions heads had not dropped before, they did then. It could have been a massacre.
In the end, there was enough fight in the tourists to avoid that. The Boks sat back and defended patiently against an attack as imaginative as the latest Obama biography, concentrating on their numbers at the breakdown and waiting for the frustration and penalties to come, playing the percentages with their own possession.
The first try came so easily. The Boks stole a line-out, and after an initial thrust by Jean de Villiers Ruan Pienaar floated a super kick across for JP Pietersen to chase. The Boks won a 5m scrum at the breakdown, took the ball through three simple, quick phases, and John Smit crashed over near the posts on the third.
Worse came. Vickery took the first two of his Beast-ings, and on the second Pienaar made it 10-0 from the tee. Stephen Jones, who had already missed one long-range shot, missed a sitter from 30 metres, while Pienaar made no mistake after a no-arm tackle by Tom Croft, a hugely contestable decision.
David Wallace took a simple pop pass to break the line, but found himself running away from his support, which was scant anyway. Then came another of those officiating moments, when Bryce Lawrence allowed a Lions advantage to go only one phase further before calling it over, raising the ire of the Lions players and fans alike.
Moments later came the first of the TMO calls, with Monye haring for the corner after a simple miss-move, and brilliantly double-tackled by Steyn and De Villiers, whose grab of the ball and flip of it free just as Monye was sliding over the line was genius.
On 22 minutes, Tom Croft scored a cracking try, started by Jamie Roberts' bust of a gap and offload to Brian O'Driscoll, and finished off when O'Driscoll showed the presence of mind to cut inside for Croft on the offload.
It was a brief flicker for first half momentum, which stayed with the hosts. Beast conquered Vickery again: 16-7 - courtesy of Steyn. Tommy Bowe was left isolated by another raking Pienaar kick: 19-7. That was it at the break.
The second half started with a shower of penalties against the Lions, including some lengthy advantage at a driving maul so palpably absent from the officiating of the Lions' efforts.
This time, the Boks eschewed the posts for the touchline and more driving. Ultimately, they drove 55m down the pitch for Brussow to score the try that made it 26-7.
Phillips nearly struck right back, but he lost the ball in the tackle from Bakkies Botha as he lunged for the line - the tightest of calls from the TMO, but once again, an act of desperation born out of a ludicrously short advantage allowance from referee Lawrence.
From then, Pienaar controlled the game with some raking kicks, with Steyn mopping up the return and the chasers tight as the nun's proverbial with their pattern, forcing the Lions to kick back and run down the clock.
The game was changed by the weird and wonderful changes of Peter de Villiers, who decided that Brussow should come off despite his magnificence at getting to the breakdown and that Smit and Beast no longer needed to boss the scrums. Suddenly, the Lions clicked, kept their ball and forced penalty after penalty out of the Boks.
One went to the corner, and two rucks later, Tom Croft took an inside pass from Roberts to score the Lions' second. With five minutes to go, Phillips made a trademark dummy and dart off the back of a ruck for a third, with Jones converting both to make it 26-21.
The stadium held its breath, while the Bok coaching team panicked and sent Smit back on to shore things up. It worked to a degree, with the Boks also grateful to a tackle by Pierre Spies in the final minute that knocked the ball loose on the Lions' final attack. But the Lions now know: it can be done. Next week, maybe it will be done in the first half as well.
Man of the match: The Beast. He was magnificent.
Moment of the match: The 40m driving maul that led to the Boks' second try. Awesome.
Villain of the match: Why does Ricky Januarie have to start a fight every time he comes on the pitch? He really is an unpleasant and unwelcome little man.
For South Africa:
Tries: Smit, Brussow
Cons: Pienaar 2
Pens: Pienaar 3, Steyn
For the Lions:
Tries: Croft 2, Phillips
Cons: S. Jones 3
South Africa: 15 Frans Steyn, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 Adi Jacobs, 12 Jean de Villiers, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Ruan Pienaar, 9 Fourie du Preez, 8 Pierre Spies, 7 Juan Smith, 6 Heinrich Brüssow, 5 Victor Matfield, 4 Bakkies Botha, 3 John Smit (c), 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
Replacements: 16 Gurthrö Steenkamp, 17 Deon Carstens, 18 Andries Bekker, 19 Danie Rossouw, 20 Ricky Januarie, 21 Jaque Fourie, 22 Morné Steyn.
British & Irish Lions: 15 Lee Byrne, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Brian O'Driscoll, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 Ugo Monye, 10 Stephen Jones, 9 Mike Phillips, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 David Wallace, 6 Tom Croft, 5 Paul O'Connell (c), 4 Alun-Wyn Jones, 3 Phil Vickery, 2 Lee Mears, 1 Gethin Jenkins.
Replacements: 16 Matthew Rees, 17 Adam Jones, 18 Donncha O'Callaghan, 19 Martyn Williams, 20 Harry Ellis, 21 Ronan O'Gara, 22 Rob Kearney.
Referee: Bryce Lawrence (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Stuart Dickinson, Vinny Munro (New Zealand)
Television match official: Christophe Berdos (France)
Assessor: Tappe Henning (South Africa)
By Danny Stephens in Durban