England coach Stuart Lancaster was briefly teased with the prospect of a magnificent comeback victory against South Africa at Twickenham this afternoon after two brilliant tries inside three thunderous second-half minutes, but ultimately his side's efforts came up short against Southern Hemisphere opposition for the fifth time in succession.
Tries from David Wilson and Ben Morgan set the stage for a tremendous finish to a brutal encounter, wiping away the damage done by ruthlessly efficient South African scores from Jan Serfontein and Cobus Reinarch to level up at 20 points apiece.
The fire stoked by a series of driving mauls was rather disappointingly extinguished though, leaving Lancaster staring at a damaging 31-28 defeat against a quality Springbok side, who much like New Zealand last week were far more convincing winners than the fine margin of the scoreline would suggest.
Sloppy start in stark contrast to last week
England attempted to come out of the blocks rampaging in much the same vein as their strong start against New Zealand seven days ago, although a string of individual errors in possession prevented them form building any momentum.
Danny Care was most guilty early on, staining the memory of his 50th cap with a lacklustre pass inside. Serfontein gobbled up an offload that was so slow he had time to step up, collect and saunter 60 metres upfield for the game's opening try.
In attack England came close to a timely riposte, but once again a lack of killer instinct in the opposition 22 was glaring as both debutant Anthony Watson and Jonny May fell just short of turning Dave Attwood's superb dart into points.
A pair of Owen Farrell penalties cancelled out Pat Lambie's own input from the boot and sent England into the break trailing 13-6, but despite efforts from Chris Robshaw and Courtney Lawes to force the issue up front it was South Africa in control of a lively encounter.
Sensational start to the second half
Lancaster would have been at pains to make it clear his side needed more craft and guile to match their endeavour at the interval, alongside getting the basics right, but those messages were knocked out of England ears by a wonderful piece of opportunism from South Africa when play restarted.
The game clock hadn't reached 42 minutes when Lambie launched a superb chip into a corridor of uncertainty between England's struggling midfield and Mike Brown, a kick read instinctively by Willie Le Roux.
His timing then proved impeccable as he raced deep into England territory, delaying his superb pass through to Reinarch until the moment it mattered most.
Fightback from England was impressive
Left staring at a 20-6 deficit we were about to find out a great deal about the character of Lancaster's youthful side, but they rose to the challenge and used Victor Matfield's sinbin to their advantage.
Tremendous work form the forwards dragged the Red Rose back into contention, with Wood and Wilson putting the finishing touches to a pair of forceful drives that the Springboks just couldn't stop, the second of which came a full 30 metres from the line.
That set the match up beautifully and gave England the perfect platform to prove Lancaster's faith in the current crop was justified, but it was one they simply couldn't meet.
Lambie shows Farrell the way
There's a reason why South Africa are unbeaten against England since 2006 in a run that stretches 12 matches and they proved that late on, with a perfectly-timed try from Schalk Burger making all the difference, just six minutes after Morgan made the decision to replace Billy Vunipola look like an inspired one.
Despite looking on the brink of freefall the visitors didn't panic, showing that the 400 caps of experience their starting XV had on England's were invaluable.
Lambie continued to build South Africa's lead late on and took his individual tally to 16 points, with a performance which will only serve to show Farrell's current flaws from an England point of view.
Brad Barritt ran in late to move England within three points going into the final two minutes, but in truth the hosts were never likely to overturn a deficit that was at times of their own making.
Lancaster has to make changes
With England now just 10 matches away from hosting the World Cup there has to be some serious questions asked, of a side who in truth currently look competitive but incapable of winning at truly elite level.
Mercifully Samoa visit Twickenham before Australia a week later and will provide Lancaster with the chance to look at George Ford, Ben Morgan and perhaps Marlon Yarde, but England's problems run much deeper and Lancaster has it all to do to repair the damage of a disappointing start to the Autumn to put it mildly.
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