England’s autumn is beginning to look as bleak as the Twickenham weather after Willem Alberts’ try earned South Africa victory.
Stuart Lancaster’s men now head into next weekend’s appointment with world champions New Zealand on the back of narrow defeats at home to Australia and the Springboks.
England matched South Africa for intensity and desire and battled back from 16-6 down, but their undoing was a slice of bad luck just after the interval.
When Ben Youngs’ hacked clearance rebounded off JP Pietersen, the ball fell to Alberts, who scored rugby’s equivalent of an open goal.
Second-half substitute Owen Farrell added three penalties to the two struck by Toby Flood as England battled but Flood had also missed two first-half penalties and again the spotlight will fall on a decision by captain Chris Robshaw when England were awarded a kickable penalty with just over a minute remaining.
Last week, England were criticised for not taking the points. Yesterday, Robshaw changed his mind, having initially told substitute Farrell to kick for touch.
Farrell slotted the penalty, but England could not gather the restart and South Africa held on to extend their unbeaten run in this fixture to 11 matches, dating back to 2006.
England had drawn heart from their 14-14 draw with South Africa in the third Test of the summer tour.
Stand-off Flood scored with his second penalty attempt to give England the lead but Eben Etzebeth stole a lineout and the Springboks earned their own penalty which Lambie converted.
Flood returned from a brief spell in the blood-bin to exchange penalties with Lambie but then missed a second kick at goal, earned by a strong England scrum.
Lambie edged the Springboks ahead for the first time in the match and, just after the restart, South Africa extended their 9-6 half-time lead in a bizarre circumstances.
When Juande Kruger lost control as he drove for the line, Ben Youngs tried to hack the ball clear but it crashed into JP Pietersen and Springboks flanker Alberts pounced to score a try that was converted by Lambie.
Farrell then kicked one penalty and, with a minute remaining, earned the kickable penalty which Robshaw, eventually, instructed Farrell to kick for goal.
Scorers. England: Pens: Flood 2, Farrell 3. South Africa: Try: Alberts. Con: Lambie. Pens: Lambie 3.
England: A Goode; C Ashton, M Tuilagi, B Barritt, M Brown; T Flood, B Youngs; A Corbisiero, T Youngs, D Cole, J Launchbury, G Parling, T Wood, C Robshaw, T Waldron. Subs: D Paice, D Wilson, M Vunipola, M Botha, J Haskell, D Care, O Farrell, J Joseph.
South Africa: Z Kirchner; JP Pietersen, J de Jongh, J de Villiers, F Hougaard; P Lambie, R Pienaar; G Steenkamp, A Strauss, J du Plessis, E Etzebeth, J Kruger, F Louw, W Alberts, D Vermeulen. Subs: S Brits, H van der Merwe, P Cilliers, F van der Merwe, M Coetzee, E Jantjies, J Taute, L Mvovo.
Referee: N Owens (Wal).