Northern-hemisphere rugby is hurting badly after another bitter weekend south of the Equator, and for 40 minutes yesterday it seemed England's pain would be particularly excruciating, as they were splattered all over the greatest of Afrikaner rugby citadels. But Chris Robshaw's men fought back valiantly in the second half, closing what had seemed an unbridgeable gap to a mere four points and, while they came up short at the end, their agony was born of frustration, not humiliation.
Two second-half tries from the scrum-half Ben Youngs and some pinpoint marksmanship from his Leicester clubmate Toby Flood restored the tourists' faith in themselves after a desperate first period and, but for a late try from the long-serving wing JP Pietersen, who has saved games for South Africa before, there might have been a shock of significant proportions. As it was, the Springboks wrapped up the series, 2-0 with one to play.
The Boks swept along at more than a point a minute in the first quarter, scoring three tries. If the first, which fell to the brick-outhouse flanker Willem Alberts, was too easy for words, the second, scored by the equally substantial hooker Bismarck du Plessis, looked just a little dodgy at the moment of touchdown and dodgier still on video replays. There was no questioning Francois Hougaard's close-range finish on 18 minutes, however, and it seemed to mark the end of England's interest in the game.
Stuart Lancaster, the tourists' head coach (pictured right), had talked about composure in the week separating the defeat in Durban and this must-win contest at a stadium where the Boks had lost only five times in the 40 years since an England team resourcefully led by the grand old Bristol front-rower John Pullin took them wholly by surprise in 1972. Unfortunately for Lancaster, his entire squad must have turned a deaf ear, for early composure there was none.
From the get-go, South Africa set about pulverising their opponents with a 14-phase attack that would have yielded a try in the left corner for Bryan Habana but for an excellent cover tackle by the No 8 Ben Morgan. England were given the put-in at the ensuing scrum and all seemed well as they held the Springbok shove, but when the ball slipped out between the tighthead prop, Dan Cole, and the loose forward Tom Johnson on the blind side of the set-piece, Alberts was able to scoop it up in his outsized paw and open the scoring.
He could barely believe his luck, and that luck may have extended further than many thought, for students of scrummaging were far from convinced that the sequence of events from put-in to emergence was legal. The ball is meant to touch a front-row forward for a set-piece to be completed, irrespective of where it revisits the light of day. The evidence of this actually happening was scant to say the least.
Worse was to come, legally and in every other sense. Ben Foden, switched from the wing to his more familiar position at full-back because of the busted thumb suffered by Mike Brown in Durban, spilled his first high ball and allowed the double world champions to launch another withering assault. Marcell Coetzee, quite brilliant on the Springbok openside flank, was as prominent as anyone in laying the siege and when the moment was there to be seized, Du Plessis muscled his way to the line at the sticks. Strong suspicions that he had grounded the ball short appeared to be confirmed by the available footage, but Giulio De Santis, the television match official from Italy, thought otherwise.
After all this, Hougaard's score had an overpowering whiff of inevitability about it. Coetzee, energy made flesh, and Tendai Mtawarira both featured twice – after a relatively quiet outing seven days previously, Mtawarira fully lived up to his nickname of "Beast" here – and there were no reports of people dying of shock when the scrum-half completed things to the right of the posts. Two minutes shy of the 20-minute mark, things were looking ugly. Yet England showed enough life to respond with a try of their own: Youngs made his presence felt with a trademark tap-and-go move, Chris Ashton put himself on his shoulder and Flood did the rest.
Morne Steyn's goal-kicking frailties just about gave England hope, and when Youngs claimed the first of his touchdowns from an overthrown South African line-out on 51 minutes, things started to look up.
Just after the hour, the half-back closed the deficit further by smuggling over from a penalty line-out after a high tackle on Thomas Waldrom by Eben Etzebeth. But Pietersen set sail on a thrilling 40-metre run eight minutes from time and regained his position on the wing to complete the wrap-up score.
South Africa: P Lambie; JP Pietersen (both Sharks), J de Villiers (Stormers, capt), F Steyn (Sharks), B Habana (Stormers); M Steyn, F Hougaard (both Blue Bulls); T Mtawarira, B du Plessis, J du Plessis (all Sharks), E Etzebeth (Stormers), J Kruger (Bulls), M Coetzee (Sharks), P Spies (Bulls), W Alberts (Sharks). Replacements: W Olivier (Bulls) for Lambie, 44; K Daniel (Sharks) for Alberts, 52; W Kruger (Bulls) for J du Plessis, 59; A Strauss (Cheetahs) for B du Plessis, 60; F van der Merwe (Bulls) for J Kruger, 62.
England: B Foden (Northampton); D Strettle (Saracens), J Joseph (London Irish), M Tuilagi (Leicester), C Ashton (Northampton); T Flood, B Youngs (both Leicester); J Marler (Harlequins), D Hartley (Northampton), D Cole (Leicester), M Botha (Saracens), G Parling (Leicester), T Johnson (Exeter), B Morgan (Scarlets), C Robshaw (Harlequins, capt). Replacements: T Palmer (Stade Français) for Botha, 44; T Waldrom (Leicester) for Morgan, 46; A Corbisiero (London Irish) for Cole, 49; Cole for Marler, 56; O Farrell (Saracens) for Strettle, 59; L Dickson (Northampton) for Youngs, 74; L Mears (Bath) for Hartley, 74; A Goode (Saracens) for Joseph, 77.
Referee: A Rolland (Ireland).