Warren Gatland’s tourists got 14 points from the boot of fly-half Dan Biggar as his side fought back from an insipid first 40 minutes and 12-3 half-time deficit to memorably triumph 22-17 in the opening game of the three-match series.
It was a sluggish start from the Lions, with England back-row Tom Curry’s over-excited ill-discipline leading to Springboks fly-half Handre Pollard knocking over two early penalties on the occasion of his 50th senior cap.
Welshman Biggar hit back with a penalty of his own after Damian de Allende was caught offside, while there was a try-saving intervention from Maro Itoje to stop returning South Africa captain Siya Kolisi from touching down.
Elliot Daly being off his feet at the breakdown allowed Pollard to extend the hosts’ advantage once more, while he made it a nine-point half-time lead after fine work at the breakdown from 2019 Men’s World Rugby Player of the Year Pieter-Steph du Toit and tighthead prop Trevor Nyakane.
Biggar missed a straightforward penalty and a 55metre-effort from Daly fell agonisingly short to cap a frustrating first period for the Lions, who saw a fine break from Robbie Henshaw ended by a wonderful tackle from Boks full-back Willie le Roux.
The Lions had won only one of the previous 24 Test matches in which they trailed at half-time, but the tide quickly turned after the break as South Africa were penalised for not releasing and England hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie dotted down after a ruthless driving maul.
Biggar’s conversion just snuck inside the far post to make it a two-point game, with the Lions then left breathing a huge sigh of relief as Le Roux raced through and gathered Lukhanyo Am’s low kick to score, only for the TMO - South African Marius Jonker, whose appointment to replace the unavailable New Zealander Brendon Pickerill caused much pre-match controversy - to rule that he had been in front of the kicker, while De Allende’s initial pass to Am also looked questionable at first glance.
That was the first of two enormous calls from the officials, with scrum-half Faf de Klerk scrambling over after Du Toit raced onto Makazole Mapimpi’s in-field chip but couldn’t gather under pressure from Curry.
There were questions of a knock-on from Du Toit, but the try was awarded and Pollard missed the subsequent conversion.
However, momentum quickly swung back in the Lions favour as Biggar kicked another two penalties in quick succession to reduce the deficit to just a single point as the Springboks’ discipline totally deserted them when they were forced onto the defensive.
South Africa-born Scotland and Lions wing Duhan van der Merwe strived for the line after a clear knock-on from Henshaw, but the visitors finally got themselves in front when lock Eben Etzebeth was whistled for collapsing a maul and Biggar had success with an excellent penalty from wide on the left.
All the momentum was now with the Lions and Hamish Watson was fortunate not to be yellow carded after appearing to tip Le Roux above the horizontal during an ill-advised tackle.
A tricky penalty attempt from Pollard drifted well wide of the left-hand post and some fine defending from Henshaw forced a knock-on from Am as South Africa attacked at speed down the right flank.
Biggar went off injured after a powerful collision with De Allende, who thought he had South Africa back in front when he touched down inside the final 10 minutes, only for the try to be wiped away after a knock-on from Cheslin Kolbe as he challenged in the air with Liam Williams.
A late infringement from Du Toit allowed replacement kicker Owen Farrell to take his time over a perfect penalty that made it a five-point Lions lead with just two minutes to play.
Their defence then stood firm to put the seal on a superb opening Test win.