They may have fallen just short of pulling off their first ever victory over Ulster, but the Lions are proving that they will be genuine contenders for the United Rugby Championship quarter-finals this season.
After finally breaking their duck by beating the Scarlets 24-23 last weekend, the Johannesburg side will have arrived in Belfast in an upbeat mood.
And they showed it at the Kingspan Stadium on Friday night as well, claiming a 14-7 halftime lead following tries by wing Richard Kriel and flank Hanru Sirgel.
Kriel’s touchdown came from yet another magical touch from Sanele Nohamba – who was again at flyhalf instead of scrumhalf – as he delivered a pinpoint cross-kick to the right corner that saw the No 14 catch and score without being touched.
But Ulster are loaded with Irish Test players and experienced campaigners across the pitch, and that helped them stay composed even when the Lions went 17-14 ahead with a Nohamba penalty early in the second half.
Hooker Rob Herring barged over for a crucial try two minutes later, with scrumhalf Nathan Doak adding the conversion, while his replacement John Cooney slotted a vital three-pointer in the final quarter to secure a hard-fought victory in cold and wet conditions.
“Obviously we are disappointed with the result. We felt we were really in it and gave ourselves an opportunity to come away with a historic win,” Lions coach Ivan van Rooyen said afterwards.
“Probably one kickoff receipt and two scrum penalties away from that (victory). Immensely proud of the fight, and adapting to the conditions.
“Speaking to Ulster afterwards, the physicality, the tempo that we played with really put them under pressure.
“Just from our side, the ability to finish that, with the pressure and circumstances, just fell short.”
The Lions return home now to take on Italian side Zebre at Ellis Park on Saturday (2.55pm kickoff), followed by the Dragons from Wales the following weekend.
Van Rooyen will hope for better luck in those encounters, having seen his team go down 35-33 to the Stormers, 17-16 to Edinburgh, 15-10 to Benetton and 24-17 to Ulster – to go with the 24-23 triumph over the Scarlets.
“It’s probably a 25-degree difference to South Africa now! But we as a team want to be proud of our toughness – when the weather or circumstances get tough, that’s when we must stand up especially. Seeing the fight out there was good to see,” he said.
“Good enough to compete, good enough to really turn this team around and probably go into the top four or five in the competition.
“Individual errors, one or two things we still need to work on. Great fight, great character in the team. A lot to get excited about, but we need to convert that into wins. Excited to come back home. We’ve got two URC games and then two EPCR games.”