The Lowvelders entered the match in the DirectAxis Financial Services-supported competition winless after three defeats, but they clawed their way back from 17-9 down at the break to hold on for the victory, with five penalty goals by Phakisa Pumas flyhalf Chris Smith proving vital in the end.
Both teams faced their own challenges, with the Phakisa Pumas struggling in the lineouts at times, while the Cell C Sharks conceded several penalties, which cost them momentum.
The Cell C Sharks dominated the first half, scoring three tries to none, carding two of those while Phakisa Pumas flanker Willie Engelbrecht was in the sin-bin for a dangerous cleanout at a ruck.
Smith opened up the scoring for the hosts in the third minute with a penalty goal after the team showed some enterprising play on attack, but they found themselves on the back-foot after losing Engelbrecht to a yellow card in the eighth minute.
The visitors took full advantage of this with Lwazi Mvovo and Kobus van Wyk scoring within six minutes of one another. The KwaZulu-Natalians added their third try in the 29th minute thanks to some good pace and a smart show-and-go from Curwin Bosch (flyhalf), while the home side could only add two more penalty goals in the first half as they battled to breach the effective Cell C Sharks defence.
But the Phakisa Pumas came out firing in the second half with former Cell C Sharks flanker Francois Kleinhans scoring an intercept try a minute after player resumed, and Smith slotted his fourth penalty goal soon after to take a 19-17 lead.
Bosch cancelled this out in the 53rd minute with his first penalty goal of the match, but the Phakisa Pumas struck again with a try by Simon Westraadt (replacement hooker) from a rolling maul.
The Cell C Sharks were dealt a big blow with four minutes to play as their replacement hooker, Craig Burden, received a yellow card, and Smith made no mistake, adding three more points to extend their lead to 27-20, which they managed to hold on for the win.
Phakisa Pumas 27 (9) – Tries: Francois Kleinhans, Simon Westraadt. Conversion: Chris Smith. Penalty goals: Smith (5).
Cell C Sharks 20 (17) – Tries: Lwazi Mvovo, Kobus van Wyk, Curwin Bosch. Conversion: Bosch. Penalty goal: Bosch.