Free State were forced to work hard for their 32-21 victory over Eastern Province in the final game of Day Two at Craven Week in Polokwane.
The Eastern Cape side took a slender 18-15 lead into the half-time break, but Free State rallied well to secure victory in an entertaining clash.
The team from Bloemfontein outscored EP by four tries to two, but by no means had things all their own way, and had to fight hard for their victory.
Free State took an early 10-0 lead thanks to outside centre Stephen Rautenbach who slotted an early penalty and then got on the end of a fluid counter-attack to burst down the left wing for a try which he converted himself.
Eastern Province responded by taking the ball deep into the opposition 22 and although flyhalf Theo Stapelberg missed a kick at goal, they kept the pressure on and centre Luan Nieuwoudt got over in the right-hand corner to open their account.
Despite that setback, Free State continued to run the ball at EP, with inside centre Aliqhayiya Mgijima opening the opposition up before getting it away to lock Thamaha Maruping who got over for their second try.
Eastern Province hit back with a stunning try of their own soon afterwards when livewire fullback Malcolm Jaer stepped past the last man to score under the poles and reduce Free State's lead to 15-12.
The free-flowing nature of the game continued as both sides threw everything at each other, and it was EP who would score next with a Stapelburg penalty levelling the scores at 15-15.
Free State were struck a further blow when their skipper Marius Louw was shown a yellow card for a dangerous tackle, and Stapelburg followed that up by kicking another penalty which gave his side an 18-15 lead at half-time.
EP started the second half brightly, and almost scored in the early exchanges, but some stern Free State defence kept them out.
Free State regrouped well once their captain returned to the fray and a massive scrum in front of the poles gave them the momentum they needed for hooker Paul Wipplinger to crash over for the try which gave them the lead back at 22-18.
EP hit back with a penalty from Stapelberg to reduce the gap to just a single point, leaving the match poised for a tense final 20 minutes.
There was action at either end of the pitch as both teams had opportunities to score, and it was Free State who would strike the killer blow when prop Ox Nche showed great speed and strength to score in the left corner.
Rautenbach put the final nail in EP's coffin with a penalty just before the final whistle to wrap up a hard-fought victory for his team.
Man of the match: His team may have lost, but the most exciting player on the pitch was EP fullback Malcolm Jaer who looked a threat every time he touched the ball.
For Eastern Province:
Tries: Nieuwoudt, Jaer
Pens: Stapelberg 3
For Free State:
Tries: Rautenbach, Maruping, Wipplinger, Nche
Cons: Rautenbach 3
Pens: Rautenbach 2
Yellow card: Marius Louw (30 mins, dangerous tackle)
Eastern Province: 15 Malcolm Jaer, 14 Reynold King, 13 Siyambuka Lawu, 12 Luan Nieuwoudt, 11 Keanu Vers, 10 Theo Stapelberg, 9 Matthew Alborough, 8 Martin Groenewald, 7 Morney Moos, 6 Cyril-John Velleman, 5 Stephan Ebersohn, 4 Elandre van der Merwe, 3 Erich de Jager, 2 Arno Lotter, 1 Jody Bambie.
Replacements: 16 Justin Antonie, 17 Kaden Prince, 18 Anru Botha, 19 Bathandwa Cafu, 20 Luciano Daniels, 21 Dylan Vermaak, 22 Jeremy Ward.
Free State: 15 EW Viljoen, 14 Dale Koopman, 13 Stephen Rautenbach, 12 Aliqhayiya Mgijima, 11 Masego Toolo, 10 Julian Delicado, 9 Heinrich Sander, 8 Andries Kriek, 7 Marius Louw, 6 Refuoe Rampeta, 5 Casper Fourie, 4 Thamaha Maruping, 3 Cornelius Kramer, 2 Paul Wipplinger, 1 Ox Nche.
Replacements: 16 Andrew du Plessis, 17 Ruben Terblanche, 18 Wahseem Gallant, 19 De Wet Bezuidenhout, 20 Shirwin Cupido, 21 Sheldon Fortuin, 22 Henry Immelman.