After a rough start to the season, the unheralded Emirates Lions have rediscovered their roar and are licking their lips at the prospect of returning to South Africa with the prize scalp of Ulster in Belfast.
Winless after the first three rounds of the 2023-24 BKT United Rugby Championship, the Emirates Lions’ resurgence began with a last-gasp 24-23 victory over Scarlets in Llanelli last week. Scoring three tries to Scarlets' two, the Emirates Lions orchestrated a late fightback with a penalty goal and a converted try in the closing minutes.
The Emirates Lions conclude their four-week European tour at Kingspan Stadium on Friday night, with prop JP Smith emphasising the importance of the forward pack gaining the ascendancy: “Ulster is always a challenge. They have got a very good forward pack with a lot of depth in the squad, so the mauls and scrums are going to be key.
In round 3, the Emirates Lions pushed Benetton – the only unbeaten side left in the competition – all the way but ultimately came up short in Treviso. The 15-10 defeat was their biggest loss of the season, such has been the fine margin between despair and delight.
The Pride secured a valuable bonus point, showcasing their ability to grind out results in tight contests.
A week earlier, against Edinburgh in the Scottish capital, the Emirates Lions also demonstrated their renowned fight in a narrow 17-16 reverse.
Their season-opener, at home against the DHL Stormers, was another example of this young team's resilience. Despite trailing 32-7 early in the second half, they roared back with four tries, pushing the 2021-22 champions to the brink in a 35-33 loss.
Ivan van Rooyen’s squad, which does not feature a 2023 World Cup-winning Springbok, has shown commendable spirit, and the head coach acknowledged the significance of breaking their drought at Parc y Scarlets: “Any win is good. Away from home and in tough European conditions is even better.
“We know that it is going to be tough in Ulster, but it’s almost like a momentum shift and the positive talk and the energy is already different.”
Assistant coach Barend Pieterse highlighted the fine margins that had denied them victory in the first three rounds, and emphasised the importance of having accumulated league points in defeat.
“There were few points in each loss and we felt those matches could have gone either way, but the most important thing is that we got log points out of the games,” he said.
“If you look at the log now, those four losing points are like an extra win for us which was very important.”
Upon returning to South Africa, the Emirates Lions have a favourable four-match schedule to end the year, and hosting Zebre Parma (11th) and Dragons (15th) at Emirates Airline Park provides an opportunity to build on their newfound momentum.
A clash against the Hollywoodbets Sharks in Durban and an encounter with the Vodacom Bulls at Loftus Versfeld promise intense South African derbies to conclude 2023.
While the Emirates Lions are currently 12th in the BKT URC, a milestone victory in Belfast, followed by success against visiting Zebre and Dragons, would spark a four-match hot streak that propels the Johannesburg team up the ladder and into playoff contention.