The Cell C Sharks needed a 76th-minute penalty to beat the Toyota Free State Cheetahs 19-16 (halftime 3-13) in their Absa Currie Cup match at Growthpoint Kings Park in Durban on Saturday.
Flyhalf Fred Zeilinga kicked the winning points after the hosts had found themselves trailing by 10 points at halftime in a stop-start game.
The Sharks had enjoyed a territorial and possession advantage during the first quarter but they failed to turn their early dominance into points.
Despite being under the cosh Free State fought their way back into the contest and they opened up a 6-0 lead courtesy of two penalties from flyhalf Willie du Plessis.
The visitors grabbed the first try of the match, with 14 minutes left in the half, thanks to a superb score from fullback Clayton Blommetjies.
Scrumhalf Sarel Pretorius broke on his own 22-metre line before carrying the ball up to the half-way line.
Pretorius off loaded to fullback Blommetjies, who chased down his own chip before outstripping the cover defence on his way to a converted try.
The Sharks finally opened their account thanks to a 31st-minute penalty from pivot Zeilinga, but despite winning a succession of penalties towards the end of the half they went to the break trailing by 10 points.
Zeilinga and Du Plessis exchanged early penalties at the start of the second half before the Sharks made five changes to their team in the 50th minute, including changing both their props.
The introduction of loosehead Thomas du Toit and tighthead Lourens Adriaanse saw the hosts start to assert some dominance in the scrums, despite the third quarter of the match being little more than a game of territorial ping-pong as both teams made liberal use of kicking out of hand.
Zeilinga kicked another penalty before wing Tonderai Chavhanga locked the match up at 16-16 after he sliced through the Cheetahs defence to run in from 50 metres out.
Zeilinga then kicked the winning points despite Cheetahs prop Kevin Stevens coming desperately close to scoring a try in the last minute but he fell just short of the Sharks tryline.
Cell C Sharks – Try: Tonderai Chavhanga; Conversion: Fred Zeilinga; Penalties: Fred Zeilinga (4).
Toyota Free State Cheetahs: Try: Clayton Blommetjies; Conversion: Willie du Plessis; Penalties: Du Plessis (3).