England may have finished within a score of the Springboks in the first southern-hemisphere challenge of Stuart Lancaster's coaching regime, but they were heavily outpointed in the close-quarter contest when the home side flexed their alarmingly large muscles in the second half. Ben Foden's try in the final seconds of the game – a spectacularly fine wing's finish under pressure from the full-back – could not disguise the fact that the tourists had finished on the painful end of physical battering.
Not that they conceded an inch more than was necessary. Led with fire and fury from the openside flank by Chris Robshaw, they reacted to a pummelling in the third quarter by forcing their way upfield and giving Owen Farrell two shots at goal, both of which he nailed to reduce the deficit to 19-12. But if they were thinking of a table-turning comeback, the Boks had other ideas. Morne Steyn, scorer of all but five of the home points, landed a wrap-up goal with three minutes left when Manu Tuilagi was caught offside, attempting to snuff out another ferocious green-shirted assault.
If this was virgin territory for England – never before had they played a Test in Durban – the burning issues surrounded the newcomers: the young Mohican-haired Harlequins prop Joe Marler; his fellow debutant in the pack, the Exeter flanker Tom Johnson; and Mike Brown, another Quin, who was last capped at full-back in 2008 and had regained his place in red-rose favours through sheer force of will.
Brown was the first to find himself under the Springbok microscope and he responded brilliantly, fielding a gruesome high ball that descended on the 22-metre line complete with a threatening human attachment in the form of Bryan Habana, before hitting a pearl of a relieving touchfinder with his trusty left boot. A minute or so later, Johnson made his presence felt by charging down a laboured clearance from the almost terminally hesitant Bokke scrum-half Francois Hougaard, and when Marler made an eye-catching tackle on Zane Kirchner in open field – the kind of tackle generally associated with centres rather than props – he earned England a promising attacking position. Owen Farrell kicked away the advantage in a rare moment of impatience.
Farrell was his usual dependable self from the tee, however. The outside-half's opening penalty from the best part of 50 metres, awarded as a result of Eben Etzebeth's failure to roll away after grounding the hard-driving Dan Cole, was as perfect an example of the rugby marksman's art as could be imagined. There would be a second three-pointer before the interval, courtesy of Ben Morgan's powerful charge deep in the South African 22 and some illegal handiwork from Marcell Coetzee. If his half-back link with Ben Youngs was not all it might have been at times, England's 20-year-old playmaker still performed as if to the manner born.
Even though Farrell's points were matched in similar fashion by Steyn, the tourists were the happier at the interval. They might have conceded a try to the No 8 Pierre Spies early in the second quarter but Tuilagi's scrambling defence was up to the mark. So was everyone else's, from Marler at the sharp end to Brown and Chris Ashton at the back..
On the resumption the Boks turned up the blowtorch. As England, smashed on to the back foot by a Springbok pack who had received a ferocity transfusion, started to fall off tackles they had been making with comfort, Habana and Patrick Lambie launched a withering attack down the left. Willem Alberts, a supersized flanker if ever there was one, and Jannie du Plessis made further ground and after a goal-line siege, Steyn was presented with a straightforward finish in the right corner.
More bad tidings arrived a dozen minutes later. After Farrell had squared up to sundry Springboks after a run down the right by JP Pietersen, the payback came in the form of a try from the South African skipper, Jean de Villiers, who ran half through and half over Brown to maximise another spellbinding contribution from the fleet-footed Habana. The argument was effectively over. Like the All Blacks and the Wallabies, the Boks can win a game with a short, sharp spell of something extra-special.
The tourists will be bruised, bodily and psychologically. Since Lancaster's accession, initially as interim head coach in December, the red-rose forwards have finished at least all square against all-comers. Yesterday was another story.
There were encouraging individual performances from the likes of Marler and Johnson, Geoff Parling and the ever-willing Robshaw, but collectively, the pack knew they had been bested. And, indeed, beasted.
South Africa Z Kirchner (Blue Bulls); JP Pietersen (Kwazulu-Natal), J de Villiers (Western Province, capt), F Steyn (Kwazulu-Natal), B Habana (Western Province); M Steyn (Blue Bulls), F Hougaard (Blue Bulls); T Mtawarira , B du Plessis, J du Plessis (all Kwazulu-Natal), E Etzebeth (Western Province), J Kruger (Blue Bulls), M Coetzee (Kwazulu-Natal), W Alberts (Kwazulu-Natal), P Spies (Blue Bulls). Replacements W Olivier (Blue Bulls) for Habana, 31-40; P Lambie (Kwazulu-Natal) for Kirchner, 40; C Oosthuizen (Free State) for J du Plessis, 48-58; R Pienaar (Ulster) for Hougaard, 56; F van der Merwe (Blue Bulls) for Etzebeth, 58; A Strauss (Free State) for B du Plessis, 65; K Daniel (Kwazulu-Natal) for Coetzee, 72.
England M Brown (Harlequins); C Ashton (Northampton), M Tuilagi (Leicester), B Barritt (Saracens), B Foden (Northampton); O Farrell (Saracens), B Youngs (Leicester); J Marler (Harlequins), D Hartley (Northampton), D Cole (Leicester), M Botha (Saracens), G Parling (Leicester), T Johnson (Exeter), C Robshaw (Harlequins, capt), B Morgan (Scarlets). Replacements T Flood (Leicester) for Barritt, 53; T Palmer (Stade Français) for Botha, 58; P Dowson (Northampton) for Morgan, 61; L Dickson (Northampton) for Youngs, 72; P Doran-Jones (Northampton) for Marler, 72; L Mears (Bath) for Hartley 75; J Joseph (London Irish) for Brown, 78.
Referee S Walsh (Australia).
Tries: M Steyn, De Villiers
Pens: M Steyn 4
Pens: Farrell 4