Golden Lions of South Africa encountered unexpectedly tough resistance from Jaguares of Argentina before scraping a 24-21 Super Rugby win in Johannesburg Friday.
"We were not hungry enough," admitted Lions skipper and No. 8 Warren Whiteley. "The Jaguares were really up for this match while we were not.
"Character got us through in the end and that makes me proud of the team, but to win the title you have to be consistently good."
Jaguares lock, try scorer and man of the match Guido Petti said: "I thought we performed very well, but the altitude made it difficult for us."
Widely regarded as the main non-New Zealand challengers for the title after finishing runners-up last season, the home side led 14-7 by half-time.
But tries by flanker Rodrigo Baez and Petti gave the visitors a 21-14 advantage 12 minutes into the second half at Ellis Park.
Lions centre Harold Vorster was sin-binned soon after, giving the South Americans a numerical superiority they failed to take advantage of.
Jaguares fly-half Nicolas Sanchez narrowly was narrowly wide with the first penalty kick at goal, and it was to prove a costly slip.
A try by flanker Ruan Ackermann -- a son of Lions coach Johan -- which fly-half Elton Jantjies converted brought the teams level seven minutes from time.
And when the Jaguares were punished for illegal scrumming, Jantjies slotted the 35-metre match-winning penalty with two minutes remaining.
Jaguares were a much improved team after surrendering timidly to the Northern Bulls in Pretoria last weekend.
They scared the Lions despite missing full-back Joaquin Tuculet, centre Juan Martin Hernandez, scrum-half Martin Landajo and No. 8 Leonardo Senatore.
Another first choice, flanker Pablo Matera, started on the bench and replaced Tomas Lezana for the second half in ideal southern hemisphere autumn conditions.
Their undoing was a lack of composure in attack, often committing handling errors or cheaply losing possession with the Lions tryline in sight.
Where the South Americans shone was in the loose, constantly disrupting the off-form South Africans and winning numerous turnovers.
The Lions did provide the highlight of the match, though, with centre Lionel Mapoe scoring a brilliant solo try on 22 minutes to put his side ahead for the first time.
Vorster and Ackermann were the other try scorers and Jantjies put on a flawless goal-kicking show, slotting three conversions and a penalty.
Centre Matias Orlando, Baez and Petti scored tries for the Jaguares, all of which Sanchez converted.