Two tries helped put South Africa 20-6 ahead a minute into the second half and although England scored two quickfire rolling maul tries to get level, Schalk Burger got the key third Springbok score and the boot of Pat Lambie brought them home.
The victory made it 11 wins and a draw for the Boks against England, dating back to 2006, and was a hugely satisfying one following their defeat by Ireland last weekend.
The frustration for England was that, just as a week ago against the All Blacks, they dominated the early stages but this time failed to turn possession into points and found themselves 10-0 down after 15 minutes after Jan Serfontein intercepted a Danny Care pass. When England did fashion an opening, poor handling or bad decision-making let them down, encapsulated when massive lock Dave Attwood ignored a two-man overlap and backed himself to get to the line, only to blow the chance.
England captain Chris Robshaw bemoaned the fact his side had to play catch up as they slumped to a fifth defeat on the bounce. Although Robshaw’s pack muscled England back into the contest with tries from David Wilson and Ben Morgan off the back of driving mauls, South Africa kept them at arm’s length with Burger’s touchdown before Brad Barritt closed the gap in the dying moments.
“We were a bit reactive, we allowed them to get ahead of us and then we had to play catch up,” said Robshaw. “We had a brilliant patch where we got two driving mauls going but unfortunately we allowed them to get their driving maul going too. It’s tough to take, especially at home, but we’ll have to work hard and come back next week.”
England had the best of possession and territory in the first half but were generally too lateral in their attacks and only two Owen Farrell penalties kept them in touch at 13-6 down. That gap became 14 points 38 seconds after the restart when Lambie chipped a perfectly weighted kick into the arms of Willie le Roux which the full-back gathered without breaking stride before slipping a lovely offload for Cobus Reinach to complete a wonderful score.
England needed to hit back immediately and did so emphatically. A monster maul that South Africa, deprived of sin-binned lock Victor Matfield, were powerless to stop, sent prop Wilson over and minutes later virtually the entire England team combined for another irresistible 40 metre charge that ended with Morgan making it 20-20.
South Africa showed, however, that they too could score through the forwards when, still with 14 men, they rolled over the corner for Burger to score and Lambie took his side ten points clear with a penalty and a drop goal.
Barritt, playing at centre, scored England’s third try in the last minute but, just as last week, it came too late and merely made the margin of defeat look more respectable.
Like last week against the All Blacks England’s set piece worked well, with two tries coming from lineouts, and the scrum was also strong, but Robshaw just feels his side are falling just short of what they are capable of. “We are probably not doing ourselves justice. We all know the way we train and the way we want to play and we haven’t put it on the pitch as well as we would have liked.”
Former England head coach Sir Clive Woodward believes the backs division is a problem for Lancaster.
He said: “The forward pack is doing really well. The front five, the scrums, the lineout, all the traditional strengths of English rugby are going well. It’s outside of that I just don’t think we are quick enough and we’re certainly not playing enough real footballers in the backs division to take on Australia, South Africa and New Zealand – which has to be the goal.”
Lancaster, however, defended his side, saying: “These games are about learning which players can and can’t deliver at the highest level and these two games have been pretty revealing in that respect.”
England: Tries: Wilson, Morgan, Barritt. Cons: Farrell 2. Pens: Farrell 2, Ford.
South Africa: Tries: Serfontein, Reinach, Burger. Cons: Lambie 2. Pens: Lambie 3. Drop goal: Lambie.
England: M Brown; A Watson, B Barritt, K Eastmond, J May; O Farrell, D Care; J Marler, D Hartley, D Wilson, D Attwood, C Lawes, T Wood, C Robshaw (capt), B Vunipola.
Subs: R Webber, M Mullan, K Brookes, G Kruis, B Morgan, B Youngs, G Ford, M Yarde.
South Africa: W le Roux; JP Pietersen, J Serfontein, J de Villiers (capt), B Habana; P Lambie, C Reinach; T Mtawarira, A Strauss, J du Plessis, E Etzebeth, V Matfield, M Coetzee, S Burger, D Vermeulen. Subs: B du Plessis, T Nyakane, C Oosthuizen, B Botha, T Mohoje, F Hougaard, H Pollard, C Hendricks.
Referee: S Walsh (Australia). Attendance: 80,000.