The Cheetahs knocked the Lions out of the race for the Currie Cup semi-finals on Saturday, winning 43-37 in a ten-try thriller in Bloemfontein.
The result means that the Cheetahs are now in a position for a home semi-final as they will expect to pick up a bonus point win against the Leopards next week while Western Province and the Blue Bulls face tricky games against the Sharks and Griquas respectively.
The Lions have a mathamatical chance of making the play-offs but that will depend on some surprising and at least one shock result.
The Lions played some wonderful rugby with interlinking and good support, but ultimately a few handling errors and too many missed tackles at crucial times against a side that took their chances cost Franco van der Merwe's team.
The Free State Cheetahs initially controlled matters, winning more of the breakdowns and on top in the territorial stakes.
But the Lions, when they got their hands on the ball, were dangerous with their interplay and only two great tackles in a single move by prop WP Nel denied them early on.
The Cheetahs outscored their visitors six tries to four in an action-packed, end-to-end battle that had the crowd on their feet for most of the 80 minutes.
After returning to the Cheetahs starting line-up Hennie Daniller got the Cheetahs off to the perfect start when he went over in the corner in the second minute.
After the early set-back the Lions clawed their way back into the tie and penalties by fly-half Elton Jantjies saw them take a 6-5 lead after 10 minutes of play.
The Cheetahs went back in front 8-6 in the 21st minute courtesy of the boot of Louis Strydom.
The see-saw battle continued as the Lions went back into the lead, somewhat against the run of play through a Burton Francis try on the half-hour mark.
The Lions ran the ball from inside their own half, Jantjies floated a pass to winger Michael Killian made a fine run down the right before shrugging off a tackle from Cheetahs lock Waltie Vermeulen and sending a pass inside to Francis who went over unopposed.
Strydom put the Cheetahs back to within two points with a penalty in the 34th minute before the Lions dotted down the their second try of the evening to make it 20-11.
Jantjies showed some excellent skill as he chipped through for Joshua Strauss to score in the corner. The fly-half then duly converted the try.
But the Cheetahs had the last say of the first period as Daniller collected his own chip and passed to Corné Uys, who offloaded to a rampaging Ashley Johnson to go over in the corner to take it to 20-16 at the break.
The halftime lead of the Lions was wiped out within the first minute after the break when home captain Adriaan Strauss barged over from a ruck following good play from Bosman. With Strydom converting, the Free State were ahead again at 23-20.
To rub it in, the Cheetahs produced another of those great individual tries that marked the match ten minutes later. Johnson ran an excellent line as Strydom off-loaded a subtle pass that might have been forward. But Johnson was right through. When the cover defence came, the Springbok chipped ahead, got the bounce and scored. Strydom missed his third from four conversions, but the Cheetahs had their bonus point and were now 28-20 ahead after 17 points in 15 minutes.
Jantjies' third penalty was followed by a great run from Free State's Strauss and Nel's steamroller try. This time Strydom was successful and his team went into a 12-point lead at 35-23, and it was further stretched when Bosman added one of his famous long range penalties (38-23 with 16 minutes to go).
It became an eight-point game when Lions replacement loose-forward Warren Whiteley ran well and fed replacement hooker Edgar Marutlulle for a try under the posts (38-30). The game was on, but a good wrap-around with Philip Snyman scoring after more good work by Daniller made it 43-30 -and with only nine minutes remaining the Lions seemed out of the game and probably also the semi-finals.
However, Killian after a series of good rucks and Free State transgressions went over in the corner and Jantjies converted the try from touch to give his side a chance at 43-37 with less than four minutes to go.
But the leeway proved too much and the Cheetahs got the inside lane for the semi-finals that will most probably deny the Lions - barring the shock of the season if the Cheetahs lose to the Leopards next weekend.
Tries: Daniller, Johnson 2 , Strauss, Nel, Snyman
Cons: Strydom 2
Pens: Bosman, Strydom 2
Tries: Francis, Strauss, Marutlulle, Killian
Cons: Jantjies 4
Pens: Jantjies 3
Cheetahs: 15 Hennie Daniller, 14 Philip Snyman, 13 Robert Ebersohn, 12 Meyer Bosman, 11 Corné Uys, 10 Louis Strydom, 9 Tewis de Bruyn, 8 Ashley Johnson, 7 Philip van der Walt, 6 Hendro Scholtz, 5 Waltie Vermeulen, 4 Francois Uys, 3 WP Nel, 2 Adriaan Strauss (captain), 1 Coenie Oosthuizen
Replacements: 16 Skipper Badenhorst, 17 Kobus Calldo, 18 Izak van der Westhuizen, 19 Kabamba Floors, 20 Tertius Carse, 21 Sias Ebersohn, 22 Riaan Smit.
Lions: 15 Michael Killian, 14 Jannie Boshoff, 13 Waylon Murray, 12 Doppies La Grange, 11 Deon van Rensburg, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Jano Vermaak, 8 Joshua Strauss, 7 Wikus van Heerden, 6 Derick Minnie, 5 Franco van der Merwe (captain), 4 George Earle, 3 Ross Geldenhuys, 2 Martin Bezuidenhout, 1 JC Janse van Rensburg.
Replacements:16 Edgar Marutlulle, 17 Wayne Swart, 18 Trevor Hall, 19 Warren Whiteley, 20 JP Joubert, 21 Burton Francis, 22 Marius Delport.
Referee: Stu Berry