The never-say-die visitors outscored the Free Staters by six tries to four to put themselves in a position to secure a maiden Carling Currie Cup title.
The Toyota Cheetahs found themselves in a sticky situation, trailing 17-7 and suffering a major blow when inspirational captain Ruan Pienaar limped off at the end of the first quarter.
However, a yellow card offence by flank Daniel Maartens - illegally sacking a driving maul - spawned a 24-point swing in what looked to be a decisive 10-minute period before and after halftime.
The hosts remained in control up until the 75th minute when, leading by 11, No 11 Rosko Specman saw yellow for a deliberate knockdown and the Airlink Pumas, in their first semi-final in 42 years, pounced, with replacements Simon Raw and Ali Mgijima scoring and Tinus de Beer converting both tries to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
Having finished the regular season one place above the Airlink Pumas in third position, the Peacock Blues will stage the final in Kimberley after they ended the Vodacom Bulls’ reign with a famous 30-19 victory in Pretoria on Friday night.
Starting confidently, the Airlink Pumas turned down a regulation penalty from right in front of the uprights and the decision paid off as an audacious behind-the-back offload by captain Willie Engelbrecht saw Eddie Fouche dot down and convert to draw first blood in the eighth minute.
The Toyota Cheetahs found their flow and after a sustained period of attack, Champion of the Match Jeandre Rudolph steamrolled Tapiwa Mafura to power over in the left-hand corner. Pienaar’s touchline conversion levelled the scores after 17 minutes.
Moments later, Pienaar pulled up in discomfort and after soldering on initially, the talisman reluctantly limped off in the 20th minute, as the Airlink Pumas pounced for their second try.
De Beer, who had a standout game, hacked a loose ball through, re-gathered and offloaded to Sebastian de Klerk, who was over for his brace soon afterwards following seamless interplay and another special touch, this time by Maartens. Fouche’s radar was off, the inside centre missing both conversion attempts and a penalty kick at goal, but the visitors were in control leading 17-7.
The Toyota Cheetahs’ forwards then stood up, winning a scrum penalty with a monster shove to set up an attacking lineout and rumbling with their driving maul to earn a penalty try.
In yellow-carded Maartens’ absence, Siya Masuku slotted the first penalty goal of the afternoon before some “Specmagic” saw the hosts snatch the lead on the stroke of halftime, Clayton Blommetjies holding onto the last pass by Rudolph after Specman had danced past a couple of defenders.
Hawies Fourie’s men banked another try with their numerical advantage at the start of the second stanza, a barnstorming break by David Brits leading to a second try for tireless Rudolph, which went unconverted. As Maartens returned from the sin bin, Masuku stretched the lead to 15 following another overwhelming scrummaging effort by his pack.
Jade Stighling was inches away from scoring a try to claw the visitors back into the match but the left wing had a foot in touch before he grounded the ball.
Continuing to scratch, it took until the 63rd minute for the Airlink Pumas to strike, De Beer the catalyst with some sublime footwork and the flyhalf feeding replacement Giovan Snyman, who sped in for a seven-pointer to make it 32-24.
The Toyota Cheetahs were able to respond through a third Masuku penalty goal to widen the gap to 11 with as many minutes remaining before the dramatic turn of events at the death. They capitalised on Specman’s yellow card right away, Raw muscling over before a wonderful wave of interplay washed Mgijima over for the historic match-winning try.
Toyota Cheetahs 35 (24) – Tries: Jeandre Rudolph (2), Penalty try, Clayton Blommetjies. Conversions: Ruan Pienaar, Siya Masuku. Penalty goals: Masuku (3).
Airlink Pumas 38 (17) – Tries: Eddie Fouche, Sebastian de Klerk (2), Giovan Snyman, Simon Raw, Ali Mgijima. Conversions: Fouche (2), Thinus de Beer (2).