England's encouraging Investec autumn campaign ended with defeat to struggling world champions South Africa and a blunt reality check.
Two penalties from Toby Flood and some intense goal-line defence had somehow kept England on level terms at 6-6 at the interval.
But the Springboks, who finished last in the Tri-Nations and were beaten 21-17 by Scotland last weekend, sealed a seventh consecutive victory over England with tries from replacement flanker Willem Alberts and wing Lwazi Mvovo.
Ben Foden scored a 90-metre intercept try late in the game but it was merely a consolation score.
England began the series with a frustrating defeat to New Zealand but responded with a thrilling record 35-18 win against Australia before downing Samoa last weekend.
Martin Johnson's men came into the game on a wave of optimism and even the team manager admitted before kick-off that he could barely contain his excitement.
This was always going to be a fearsomely physical encounter. England had vowed they were ready to match the Springboks but ultimately they could not.
England were dragged into an arm-wrestle, they committed too many mistakes under pressure and the ferocious Springboks eventually made them pay.
Johnson's men started in enterprising fashion but their scrum was under pressure from the outset against the powerful Springbok unit.
After England had conceded a scrum free-kick, Jean de Villiers charged forward. He was caught by Mike Tindall, England won the turnover and Nick Easter launched a counter-attack from deep.
Tom Croft galloped down the left wing and stepped inside the South African number eight Pierre Spies before he was hauled down by three Springbok defenders.
Referee George Clancy penalised South Africa for lying on the ball and when scrum-half Ben Youngs tried a quick tap he was taken out illegally by prop Jannie du Plessis.
This time England opted for the posts and Toby Flood slotted the kick.
Chris Ashton then suffered a blow to the head in a tackle on Victor Matfield, which left the Northampton wing slurring his words and referee Clancy urging England's medics to take him off.
Ashton refused but was almost immediately exposed as Francois Steyn switched play and floated a long pass for Mvovo, who spilled it with a try beckoning.
England's scrum conceded another free-kick and then a penalty which was converted by Morne Steyn - but England soon responded.
When Shontayne Hape was taken out in the air on halfway, Flood went for touch. England drove forward from the lineout through Sheridan before Francois Steyn hit the ruck from the side and Flood nailed the penalty.
But that was virtually the last England saw of the ball as the Springboks dominated the rest of the half, assisted by a flurry of penalties.
It was testament to their wholehearted defence that England did not trail at the interval.
England had invited the pressure on themselves when Foden shipped a wayward pass inside his own 22 and forced Cueto to concede a five-metre scrum.
The Springboks hammered away before creating half a gap for Matfield but Lawes halted the Springbok captain and Youngs dived in to dislodge the ball from his grasp just as he stretched to touch down.
Flood required treatment for a neck injury and he failed to make half-time while Croft left the field with an apparent shoulder injury.
The Springboks continued to build pressure. Matfield had ignored an overlap when he stretched for the line and full-back Zane Kirchner then did the same, opting instead to dab through a grubber kick which Lawes did well to cover.
Referee Clancy called play back for an earlier offence but Morne Steyn inexplicably missed his shot at goal and Francois Steyn then struck the post with a long-range effort.
Tindall secured the loose ball and cleared as England escaped - but it was only temporary relief as Francois Steyn broke the line and offloaded to Spies.
The giant Springbok number eight should have offloaded to wing Gio Aplon but he held on and Foden showed great upper-body strength to drive Spies into touch. Another wasted opportunity.
England opened the second half by conceding a soft penalty when Tindall was spotted offside and Morne Steyn nudged the Springboks ahead.
The response was immediate with Lewis Moody leading the charge before Easter and Hartley drove for the Springbok line but South Africa defended valiantly.
The forwards were repelled and when Hodgson spread play wide Ashton and then Cueto were swallowed up by the green and gold defence.
England then looked to Easter again but he was hit by three defenders and in trying to offload the ball went to ground and all the pressure was released as South Africa cleared.
South Africa began to ring the changes with prop CJ van der Linde and flanker Willem Alberts sent on - and both made an immediate impact.
The England scrum struggled as the Springboks wheeled one and then hooked a ball against the head. Morne Steyn kicked ahead and Cueto conceded the lineout.
South Africa drove through phase after phase before moving the ball wide and Spies' wonderfully delayed pass sent Alberts over in the corner.
The Springboks then supplied the killer blow. From an attacking lineout both Steyns dropped back into position for a drop-goal - but the ball was moved wide for Mvovo, who brushed past Ashton to score.
England were gifted a late try after Foden picked off Van Der Linde's offload and sprinted 90 metres to score. Tindall tried the quick drop-goal conversion and hit the post.