The Bulls 30-13 loss to the Stormers in Cape Town left them with mixed emotions as directly after the match they were awarded the trophy for winning the South African conference.
Victory in defeat left a bitter-sweet taste in the mouths of the title-chasing Bulls after they were outplayed by the Stormers in the Super Rugby derby at Newlands on Saturday.
However, the expression of their captain Dewald Potgieter showed no signs of a sense of achievement as he took hold of the South African Super Rugby conference winner's trophy.
"It was not a good feeling when we walked off the field tonight," Potgieter said.
"Obviously, a lot has gone into winning the SA conference trophy but we saw tonight that we still need to react when we're trailing in a match."
Bulls coach Frans Ludeke was philosophical in defeat, saying it was important that his players heed the lessons they learnt in the match.
"We had a great season with nine wins in a row but tonight we were given a reminder that we can lose focus," Ludeke said.
"We cannot play like this more so if it is a knock-out match like a play-off.
"It is more important what we take out of this match and we now know that the line-out is one area we'll need to work on before the play-offs."
Ludeke said they will look at the playoffs as a new competition and would not get ahead of themselves.
"The Stormers played with freedom and their set-pieces were better than ours," he said.
"They were a very determined side but at least we kept on going. We know what we have to work on for the semi-final."
The bitter-sweet feeling was equally prevalent in the Stormers camp that went into the match without hope of reaching the play-offs but they produced their most cohesive performance for the season.
Stormers coach Allister Coetzee also tempered his delight after his side's comprehensive victory.
"It is hard to accept the situation we find ourselves in when we have now defeated all three conference winners (Bulls, Brumbies and Chiefs)," Coetzee said.
It was little consolation for Stormers skipper Jean de Villiers, who reflected on his side's inability to rise above adversity in the past season.
"We find ourselves in this position (not being in the play-offs) because when the pressure was on us, we did not react the way we should have," De Villiers said.
"We started the season with a horrendous draw, and then we were hit by injuries.
"As a player-group we were also hit hard emotionally by what happened to Schalk (Burger), Elton (Jantjies) and Tinus (Linee)."
The Bulls will have a bye this coming weekend when the two play-off matches, to decide the final four teams for the semi-finals, take place.
The highest ranked winning team will play the Bulls in Pretoria in a fortnight's time.