Despite a late charge from the Cheetahs the Blue Bulls did enough to hold on for a 34-30 victory in their clash at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday.
The home side established a commanding 27-9 lead early in the second half, but found themselves defending desperately as the Cheetahs mounted a fierce fight back to push them right to the end.
The teams exchanged early penalties before the Blue Bulls took control of the game with the only try of the first half when No.8 Arno Botha broke the line to put wing Sampie Mastriet over on his debut.
The Cheetahs were trying to play with width but they battled to cross the gainline against the organised Bulls defence, so although they kept the ball through extended phases they lacked the penetration to make it count.
The Bulls were emplaoying a far more direct style and it paid off for them as they put the cheetahs under pressure in their own half, yielding more points from thew boot of Bulls flyhalf Louis Fouche who put his team 17-6 ahead after half an hour.
The Cheetahs were desperate to hit back before half-time, and they were put in a great position by a weaving run from Rayno Benjamin, but they had to be content with Nico Scheepers' third penalty which saw them reduce the Bull' lead to 17-9 at the break.
The Bulls exploded out of the changerooms at the start of the second half and scored ten quick points to stamp their authority in front of their home crowd.
An exciting break from scrumhalf Jano Vermaak put the Cheetahs under pressure and lock Franco Mostert was on hand to crash over for the try which was followed up by another Fouche penalty after the Bulls had smashed the visitors at a scrum on halfway.
This left the Cheetahs chasing the game, and coach Naka Drotske responded by making a double change that gave his side far more attacking purpose.
Sias Ebersohn came on at flyhalf and prop Coenie Oosthuizen made his long-awaited return from injury, and both substitutions proved telling.
Oosthuizen led the way up front as the Cheetahs resolved to get over the advantage line before sending it wide and it paid off when Ebersohn was able to slip a neat offload to the speedy Raymond Rhule who cruised over for a try which was converted by Scheepers to reduce the gap to 27-16.
With their confidence boosted the Bloemfontein side continued to press and refused the opportunity to kick for goal as they went in search of a try.
That positive move was rewarded rewarded when Scheepers was put over in the corner and then managed to convert from the touchline to put the Cheetahs within touching distance at 27-23.
The Bulls were left rattled by the shift in momentum, and when they managed to get their hands on the ball Fouche had a go at a drop-goal to try and give them some breathing room but pulled it wide.
The Cheetahs continued to press and were relishing the extra space avaioable out wide as the Bulls defenders tired. Another flowing backline move put Benjamin in some space on the outside and it took a desperate, and dangerous tackle from prop Morne Mellett to take him into touch just short of the line as the Bulls held on for dear life.
The home side tried to settle things down and Fouche had another long-range crack at goal but he missed and a basic knock-on from replacement flank CJ Stander had the Bulls under pressure in their own half once more.
However, the Bulls showed great character to soak up the pressure and once a strong run from inside centre Francois Venter had put them in the Cheetahs 22 it was Stander who stretched for the crucial try next to the poles which secured victory for his side.
That was not where the late drama ended, and the Cheetahs snapped into attack-mode once again as they searched for a vital bonus point.
Their perseverance paid off when prop Marcel van der Merwe showed good awareness of the laws to get over for a late try which was confirmed by the TMO to give the visitors a deserved bonus point for their efforts.
Man of the match: Raymond Rhule was impressive for the Cheetahs, but the player that had the biggest impact on the game was Bulls scrumhalf Jano Vermaak.
For the Blue Bulls:
Tries: Mastriet, Mostert, Stander
Cons: Fouche 2
Pens: Fouche 5
For the Free State Cheetahs:
Tries: Rhule, Scheepers, van der Merwe
Cons: Scheepers 3
Pens: Scheepers 3