England had talked throughout the build-up to this dispiriting second successive defeat by a southern hemisphere superpower about the physical challenge always presented by South Africa. But as much as Test rugby is about the tough nuts, there is a prime place for cool heads and calm, collective decision-making – and both went missing in a shambolic conclusion to England's 11th match in a row without a win over the Springboks.
With two minutes remaining of a match that had long been looking beyond England's butter-fingered grasp – yet never irretrievable according to the scoreboard – the home team had a penalty a few metres inside the Boks' half. The choice was whether to kick for goal, reduce the Boks' advantage to a single point and take their chances with the restart, or kick for position and go for the try. Chris Robshaw drew criticism when he was too bold with a similar call with more than a quarter remaining of last week's 20-14 loss to Australia. Now the Harlequins flanker, less than a year into his tenure as national captain under his equal as a newcomer at Test level, the head coach, Stuart Lancaster, dithered and spent crucial seconds as it appeared he had to argue with his fly-half Owen Farrell, who was on as a replacement for Toby Flood and blatantly wanted to go for the corner. Having had rank pulled on him, Farrell put the kick over, and when South Africa restarted with precisely one minute left on the clock, a fumble between two England forwards, Mouritz Botha and Ben Morgan, put paid to Robshaw's slightly desperate idea that there was still time to work back upfield for a winning score.
Apart from being without a win against South Africa since November 2006, England have more immediate problems. They have no chance of being among the top four seeds for the 2015 World Cup pool draw to be made on 3 December, two days after their final autumn international here against the No 1 team in the world, New Zealand. By failing to match the world's second- ranked team, the Boks, England made only tiny incremental steps forward in some areas – the scrum, notably – and went backwards in others when compared with the draw against the same opponents in Port Elizabeth that had appeared a morale-boosting finish to a lost series last June. A facile rout of Fiji two weeks ago is an inconsequential blip on a near-flatline of neg- ative results against leading nations.
England had nothing with which to shock the Boks. The speculative chips and optimistic sidesteps that work in the domestic Premiership got snuffed out by players schooled in the tough cross-border Super 15. True, England had guts and perseverance, and also stuck up for their mates in a brief touchline brawl. But they never got seriously near to scoring a try.
And England were undone by a freakish try damagingly early in the second half. It had all begun with England winning a penalty in the Boks' 22 within 23 seconds – every alert wag in the stadium cried, 'Go for the corner' in reference to the previous week's debate – and Flood's kick slid to the left. He then popped two penalties over in the sixth and 12th minutes. Each time Pat Lambie, the Boks' fly-half replied in kind and it was 6-6 when Flood, most woundingly, pushed a kick wide to the right from short range – this for an England scrum barrelling forward that South Africa had wheeled. Francois Louw reacted to that setback by giving Robshaw a slap round the ear. The Boks' openside, who earns his club living with Bath, soon got his own back. Louw battered through Robshaw's tackle off a line-out, England conceded a penalty for offside and Lambie, the 22-year-old from Durban, put his side in front for the first time.
The home line-out, that had been faultless before this autumn, began to fail under the adroit assault of Eben Etzebeth and Juandre Kruger. There were many bouts of booting in the air, presumably forced to suit the sodden conditions, and much as England's adopted son of Durban, the Saracens centre Brad Barritt, knitted his side's defence together, the potential for counterattack was limited to kicks from the half-backs and runs from Alex Goode and Mike Brown in the back three. The midfield did little creatively until a couple of belated breaks by Manu Tuilagi, and then one with acres of space died out in a pass from Chris Ashton that halted his wing Mike Brown in his tracks.
That came after the 43rd-minute Bok try that was a tale of three ricochets. Lambie was lucky with a half-blocked kick that pinballed out for a line-out in the England 22. Etzebeth set up a maul from which Kruger dropped the ball, only for Ben Youngs to see his clearance bounce off J P Pietersen towards England's goalline, where Wood could only fumble it straight to the happy scorer, Willem Alberts. The conversion from Lambie had South Africa 16-6 up – and if England were lifted by Farrell's kicks to bring it back to 16-12 and partly excused because they are a team in flux, it should be remembered South Africa were lacking the quality of Pierre Spies, Bryan Habana, "Beast" Mtawarira, Bismarck du Plessis and Frans Steyn.
Seeking crucial field position, Mako Vunipola, David Paice and Ashton all spilt possession: testament to the pouring rain and the punishing South African hits led by the remarkable Etzebeth, who in common with so many of his compatriots (aside from those who have converted to the Red Rose) still have no idea what it is to lose to England.
England: A Goode (Saracens); C Ashton (Saracens), M Tuilagi (Leicester), B Barritt (Saracens), M Brown (Harlequins); T Flood (Leicester), B Youngs (Leicester); A Corbisiero (London Irish), T Youngs (Leicester), D Cole (Leicester), J Launchbury (Wasps), G Parling (Leicester), T Wood (Northampton), B Morgan (Gloucester), C Robshaw (Harlequins, capt). Replacements: O Farrell (Saracens) for Flood, 46; M Vunipola (Saracens) for Corbisiero, 53; J Haskell (Wasps) for Wood, 53; D Care (Harlequins) for B Youngs, 67; D Paice (London Irish) for T Youngs, 67; M Botha (Saracens) for Launchbury, 72; D Wilson (Bath) for Cole, 75.
South Africa: Z Kirchner (Bulls); JP Pietersen (Natal), J de Jongh (Western Province), J de Villiers (Western Province, capt), F Hougaard (Bulls); P Lambie (Natal), R Pienaar (Ulster); G Steenkamp (Toulouse), A Strauss (Cheetahs), J du Plessis (Natal), E Etzebeth (Western Province), J Kruger (Bulls), W Alberts (Natal), D Vermeulen (Western Province), F Louw (Bath). Replacements: P Cilliers (Western Province) for Du Plessis, 40; M Coetzee (Natal) for Alberts, 56; H van der Merwe (Leinster) for Steenkamp, 56; F van der Merwe (Bulls) for Etzebeth, 69; S Brits (Saracens) for Strauss, 74.
Referee: N Owens ( Wales).
How the new men did
Alex Corbisiero Hit
Returned after being eased back from injury by his club London Irish to hoodwink the Boks' tighthead Jannie du Plessis into a couple of debatable scrummaging penalties that went England's way. "Corbs" appears worthy of Stuart Lancaster's belief in him as first choice for the No 1 jersey.
Joe Launchbury Hit
The young Wasp has been the most eye-catching second-row forward in the Premiership last season and this – when he is not doing great things as a blindside flanker – and his positioning and handling were top class.
Tom Wood Hit
Captain in waiting when he injured a foot at the turn of the year, the Northampton flanker seized his chance on returning to the starting line-up. All elbows and knees and chin jutting in over the breakdown, but will regret his split-second part in the Boks' solitary try.
Mike Brown Miss
Ran as hard as he does for Harlequins and out of position on the wing he caught Bok kicks. Putting two full-backs up against South Africa is not unheard of, but when Brown had his big chance, supporting Chris Ashton, the position went unfinished.
Ben Morgan Miss
No certainty yet that England have found the new Lawrence Dallaglio as a fast-breaking, gainline busting No 8. Morgan was given the bum's rush by Lancaster a few weeks ago and told to find his form, but returning against the Boks was tough.
Ben Youngs Miss
The wet conditions might have been made for Danny Care's slippery breaks around the fringes and Youngs looked narked to be substituted. Ruan Pienaar showed him how to place box-kicks, but Youngs has the talent to come again.