Lions fly half Marnitz Boshoff kicked all the points for the visitors and sunk the hosts with a drop goal in the final minute.
The Cheetahs would be devastated after dominating most of the play, exploiting the inexperienced side the Lions brought to the City of Roses.
Many of the visiting team earned their first Super Rugby cap against the Cheetahs, but it was the superior performance by Boshoff which pulled it through for the Lions.
The Cheetahs started at a frantic pace and had two kickable penalties inside the first five minutes. Springbok fly half Johan Goosen however struggled with his boot and squandered both opportunities.
The Lions’ defence held their own and progressed into the Cheetahs’ half where Boshoff kicked a penalty after referee Craig Joubert reversed one awarded to the Cheetahs. Goosen levelled the scores with his third attempt.
The Cheetahs scored the first try of the 2014 competition after Springbok full back Willie le Roux broke through and handed off to winger Raymond Rhule to score in the corner. Goosen converted to give the hosts a comfortable lead after 20 minutes.
Boshoff kicked another couple of penalties shortly afterwards to reduce the halftime deficit to a single point at 10-9 to the hosts.
The second half started with a try to the Cheetahs after some good pressure on the visitors. Winger Cornal Hendricks scored his first try in Super Rugby after Le Roux again played a vital role in the build up, and Goosen converted.
The Cheetahs’ ill-discipline meant Boshoff reduced the deficit to just two points after the hosts’ replacement flanker Jean Cook was yellow-carded for a late charge on Boshoff.
Replacement flyhalf Elgar Watts opened up the game with his penalty for the Cheetahs, but Boshoff again answered in kind five minutes from full time. It was Boshoff who clinched the game for the visitors when he kicked a late drop goal.
Points scorers: Cheetahs 20 (10): Tries: Raymond Rhule, Cornal Hendricks. Conversions: Johan Goosen (2). Penalties: Johan Goosen, Elgar Watts.
Lions 21 (9): Penalties: Marnitz Boshoff (6). Drop goal: Marnitz Boshoff.