The Cheetahs weathered an early storm from the Lions to actually lead 16-13 after half-an-hour, but the Lions scored two tries in three minutes either side of half time to give the Gautengers a 27-16 lead and thereafter there was nothing that could rescue the Free Staters from a fourth defeat in six matches.
Flyhalf Elton Jantjies instituted some early control for the Lions as his short kick-off caught the Cheetahs napping, was claimed by flank Willie Britz and led to a penalty which Jantjies kicked, followed by another penalty in the sixth minute.
The one area where the Lions did struggle was at the breakdown and referee Sindile Mayende set the tone with an early call against fetcher Cobus Grobbelaar, allowing Cheetahs wing Nico Scheepers to kick a penalty (3-6).
The Cheetahs had a much bigger problem, however, and that was their insistence on trying to run their surfeit of possession in their own territory and the mistakes that came as they tried to run under pressure was what eventually brought them to their knees.
It was the cause of the Lions’ first try as flyhalf Tewis de Bruyn swung the ball from inside his own 22, but his intentions were beautifully read by Lions lock Franco van der Merwe, who put himself between the pivot and the midfield receivers and claimed an easy intercept try.
De Bruyn will probably claim he did not see Van der Merwe lurking because both teams were playing in predominantly white jerseys, with the Cheetahs changing to orange four minutes later, but the pass should never have been given in the first place.
When the Cheetahs did rumble upfield and keep the ball going forward via their pack, they were rewarded with prop Marcel van der Merwe summoning the power to bash through for a try.
Scheepers converted and then the Lions’ breakdown problems proved a real spoke in their wheel as the Cheetahs sharpshooter was presented with two more kicks at goal to put Free State 16-13 ahead.
But Janjties was just the man to provide the spark and a vital try for the Lions just before half-time as his lovely inside pass to Ruan Combrinck allowed the wing to burst through the first line of defence and his beautiful swerve outside then took him past the cover defence and over the tryline.
The Cheetahs had barely settled down for the second half when centre Lionel Mapoe, another of the Lions’ outstanding players, stood up the defence with wonderful footwork and laid a try on a plate for wing Deon Helberg.
The Lions suffered a blow in the 49th minute when Van der Merwe was sent to spend 10 minutes in front of the grandstand after failing to keep on his feet in the ruck, but the visitors defended superbly and did not concede a point while he was gone, despite the Cheetahs battering away at their line for 19 phases at one stage.
The siege was lifted in the 59th minute as Jantjies and Mapoe once again produced slick work in the backline and hooker Callie Visagie put in a big charge forward and earned a penalty. Jantjies slotted his sixth successive successful kick at goal and then nailed an effort from just inside the Free State half and the Lions were cruising with a 33-16 lead.
The Cheetahs narrowed the gap with 10 minutes remaining as Van der Merwe grabbed his second try, but the Lions were the last to celebrate as they used the width of the field and great work by flank Cobus Grobbelaar allowed Combrinck the space on the outside to score his second try.
The win took the Lions to 20 points on the log, which will see them go into next weekend’s seventh round on top of the standings unless Western Province manage to score a bonus-point win over the Sharks.
It should be the last game the Lions play for a while with Jantjies because if he does not get a call-up to the Springbok squad, given his brilliant all-round form and the calamitous display by Morne Steyn in Dunedin, there is probably going to be a riot.
TOYOTA FREE STATE CHEETAHS – Tries: Marcel van der Merwe (2). Conversions: Nico Scheepers (2). Penalties: Scheepers (3).
MTN GOLDEN LIONS – Tries: Franco van der Merwe, Ruan Combrinck (2), Deon Helberg. Conversions: Elton Jantjies (3). Penalties: Jantjies (4).