AUDIO: Disappointed Lions coach to 'rethink' set-up
The Lions, beaten finalists in the past two seasons, suffered their third consecutive loss – going down to Highlanders.
Although they trailed throughout, the visitors were in with a chance to snatch a late win when a Marnus Schoeman try narrowed the gap to 27-33 with seven minutes remaining.
However, Highlanders flyhalf Lima Sopoaga landed two penalties for a 19-point match haul and a 39-27 win.
The Lions till top the South African conference on 31 points from 12 matches.
Three sides are sitting on 24 points – seven behind the leaders, the Lions.
The Stormers' 9-15 loss to the Chiefs has made life very difficult for them in the remainder of the season.
The Bulls proved the biggest beneficiaries of a round in which they were the only South African side to win. They beat the Sharks 39-33 in Pretoria to be ninth and 10th respectively – while ahead of them are the Jaguares, who had the bye at the weekend.
As things stand the Jaguares would be the second side from the Conference to make the playoffs.
The Bulls travel to Argentina to play the Jaguares this coming weekend, while the Sharks are host to the Chiefs – both are key games for each of the sides concerned.
The Lions return home from New Zealand to host the Brumbies.
The Lions coach, Swys de Bruin, said he was "bitterly disappointed" with the team's final tour match and admitted he will have to "rethink" the entire set-up.
De Bruin, who momentarily forgot how many tries his team scored, said he can't understand how his team could not win the game.
He added that they conceded too many 'soft' tries.
"It is just not good enough and totally unacceptable,"The coach said.
"We just have to get home an rethink the situation and take stock.
"I don't have much to say."