Durban – The Lions return home to Johannesburg on Sunday with a meager six points from four matches overseas in the United Rugby Championship but the silver lining to the cloud is that they were significantly more competitive against much stronger opposition than they were in the Currie Cup.
While that sounds like looking for crumbs for comfort, the reality is that the Lions indeed seem to be on an upward curve.
In their first tour game, they beat Zebre 38-26 before capitulating against the Scarlets (36-13) and then narrowly lost 13-9 to Glasgow. And at the weekend, they succumbed 26-10 to an Ulster team that was frustrated by the tenacity of the Lions’ defence.
But while the Lions should deservedly be praised for their willingness on defence, the reality is that their attack was rudderless after the win against Zebre and — in mitigation — after they lost flyhalves Jordan Hendrikse and Eddie Fouche to injury.
The truth is that the Lions seldom looked like scoring against Ulster and if defence is all they have to offer, all they can expect are honourable defeats.
But captain Burger Odendaal feels his team is not far off turning the corner.
“The conversation we've been having since the Currie Cup is that our mistakes prove expensive,” Odendaal said. “Playing in a competition like this one, which is essentially like Test matches, if you make an error, your opponents are going to pounce and they’ll score points.
“I don't think it's down to a lack of experience. It's just tough … we're simply making unnecessary mistakes. It really feels like when we get into an opponent's 22 and put on the pressure, errors undo the good work.”
Coach Ivan van Rooyen said he was frustrated that his team could not capitalise on the pressure created by hard work.
“We are definitely competitive for extended periods, and our work rate is really high, but then we undermine our momentum with a mistake. Out physicality is there but consistency is not,” he said.
"The biggest lesson we've learned from this tournament is that you need to hang a gold medal around territory. If you get impatient with your kicking game and make one or two judgment errors, the opponents exploit that and you suddenly feel stuck in your own 22 for five to ten minutes."
Odendaal said his team returns home with heads held high rather than tails between their legs because there was an incremental improvement.
"The results weren't what we wanted, but there was improvement every match after the Scarlets game. Now we're welcoming opponents to the Highveld and I believe it's a great opportunity for us to grow further.
"There's a definite belief in our system and it is not going to be easy for those guys to come and play us on the highveld in summer.”
The Lions now have a break before playing Cardiff at Ellis Park on November 28.