Ulster’s showed remarkable resolve to snatch a draw from the jaws of defeat in Bloemfonteinon Friday night.
A last gasp try from Henry Speight and Billy Burns’ conversion saw Ulster draw 39-all with Cheetahs to leave them unbeaten this season to date.
In a ding-dong affair Ulster came from behind several times, but it looked as though the Cheetahs had secured their first win of the Guinness PRO14 campaign when Rabz Maxwane ran under the posts with just four minutes remaining.
But in spite of looking out on their feet and the high altitude having taken its toll, Ulster threw one last effort in attack and were rewarded with the converted try.
They pick up three points, having secured a try scoring bonus point.
Head coach Dan McFarland admitted he was disappointed the side had not won.
“We came with the objective of winning but in the first half we didn’t play the territory game perfectly and we missed a couple of tackles.
“Overall with the five day turnaround and the injuries we suffered, I was really impressed.
“Well done to the lads for fighting back in that second half and to take three points away from the match,” he enthused.
The Conference B leaders, who won their opening three fixtures, trailed for the majority of the second of their South African matches before fly-half Burns kept his cool under extreme pressure following Speight’s injury-time try.
Two converted tries from scrum-half David Shanahan, both assisted by centre Darren Cave, meant the Irish side went in three points behind at half-time following scores from Cheetahs pair Gerhard Olivier and William Small-Smith, and Tian Schoeman’s penalty.
The South Africans were searching for their first win in this season’s competition and second-half tries from hookers Joseph Dweba and Jacques du Toit and wing Rabz Maxwane looked to have put them on course for victory, although Johnny Stewart’s score and a penalty try gave Ulster hope.
Louis Fouche’s 78th-minute penalty extended the hosts’ lead to seven, before Australian Speight powered over in the final moments and Burns, who kicked 12 points during the course of the match, added the extras to claim an unlikely three points for his side.
Ulster were deal a massive blow before a ball had been kicked.
Having already lost impressive scrumhalf John Cooney to a head injury earlier in the week, Ulster’s backline was dealt further blows shortly before kick-off when Will Addison and Craig Gilroy, both named in the original line-up, were ruled out through injury.
In Cooney’s absence Dave Shanahan was handed a rare start at scrumhalf and produced one of his best performances in the Ulster jersey.
Cheetahs scored the game’s opening try inside two minutes through Gerhard Olivier and edged themselves ahead at the break on the 38th minute when William Small-Smith finished off a Maxwane break.
Early in the second half Alan O’Connor was sent to the bin for the second game running, this time for repeated infringements in the maul.
The South Africans immediately capitalised on their numerical advantage, with hooker Joseph Dweba driving over.
Cheetahs repeated the feat 10 minutes later with replacement hooker Jacques du Toit going over to give the his side their first two-score lead of the contest.
Replacement scrumhalf Jonny Stewart kept Ulster in touch with a well-taken score before the visitors looked to have completed an unlikely turnaround on 72 minutes when referee Ben Whitehouse awarded a penalty try and brandished a yellow card to Charles Marais for side-entry into the maul.
However, the impressive Maxwane exploited heavy defending legs just a minute later to swing the pendulum back in the favour of the hosts.
With their final frantic thrust forward, Speight found room to dive over, allowing Billy Burns to hold his nerve and bring the scores level for the final time.