The Durbanites, who held a slender 19-14 lead at the break, added two tries to the three scored in the opening half, with the crucial score coming 10 minutes from time when fullback Anthony Volmink scored to push his side into a 12-point lead. That proved decisive in a match determined by small margins and crucial moments.
The most telling was provided by Cell C Sharks replacement flyhalf, Boeta Chamberlain, who created some magic to send Volmink over and stop the home side's fightback plans.
Both sides came to play and provided a slugfest of action, with a number of fine individual performances as well.
The Emirates Lions showed great appetite to keep the ball alive early on and numerous offloads formed part of their continued desire to have the ball in play. That had the Cell C Sharks' defence under severe pressure from the start and it was not long before referee Stuart Berry was penalising the visitors.
Two early lineout mauls were stopped as were a number of backline sorties, but the Cell C Sharks' discipline were not on the same standard, and they fell afoul of Berry's whistle.
Clearly intent in making a statement, the Emirates Lions opted for a number of scrums from those early penalties, but it took their third effort from close to the posts to deliver the desired result.
Andre Warner anticipated well that Berry was going to penalise the visitors again and when the official did, he was quick to tap and run. That caught the Cell C Sharks napping and the scrumhalf scored untouched. Jordan Hendrikse converted for a 7-0 after 11 minutes of play.
The try ironically released the pressure on the KwaZulu-Natalians, as well as the shackles. They attacked with purpose and scored with their first visit into the Lions' den. An attacking lineout option proved fruitful and Kerron van Vuuren (hooker) got the five pointer, with Manie Libbok slotting the conversion. Those meant scores were tied after 15 minutes of play.
The Cell C Sharks kept pushing and when offered another opportunity 31 minutes in, following another driving maul, Van Vuuren executed beautifully for his second try, being held up minutes earlier.
The home side battled at the breakdown as the half progressed and that gave the visitors commanding front foot ball.
That came to fruition for the Cell C Sharks on the stroke of halftime. First Springbok wing Makazole Mapimpi, back in Durban from a stint in Japan, broke a number of tackles in broken play, before Jaden Hendrikse teased the defense with a silky run before off-loading to Phepsi Buthelezi, who crashed over for a delightful try. Libbok converted for a 19-7 lead.
Credit to the Emirates Lions though, who had one more attacking opportunity and took it deep into injury time, with Len Massyn driven over 45 minutes in. Hendrikse converted to bring the scores closer.
The second half started pretty much the same way as the first. The home team attacked but this time with no reward, with the visitors cashing in when the opportunity came. A counterattack, after numerous phases of play, saw Mapimpi celebrating his return to South Africa with a fine try, bobbing and weaving his way to the line. Libbok converted for a 26-14 lead.
Needing something to happen and happen fast, the Emirates Lions reverted to their pack, who responded, with hooker PJ Botha driven over at the back of a rolling maul. Hendrikse converted to cut the lead back to five points and all to play with 20 minutes left.
Chamberlain's intervention proved the difference. The replacement flyhalf chipped and chased successfully and once he re-gathered, he found a willing Volmink who dotted down against his former team.
Emirates Lions 21 (14) - Tries: Andre Warner, Len Massyn, PJ Botha. Conversions: Jordan Hendrikse (3).
Cell C Sharks 31 (19) - Tries: Kerron van Vuuren (2), Phepsi Buthelezi, Makazole Mapimpi, Anthony Volmink. Conversions: Manie Libbok (3), Boeta Chamberlain.