Replacement prop Thomas du Toit was sent off for a high tackle with 20 minutes remaining to suggest that the game might be back in the melting pot. Although the Boks led 27-6 at that point, England had come back from a 19-point deficit to draw with the All Blacks seven days earlier.
But there was to be no ‘miracle’ for the home team this time; no last-minute disappointment as was suffered here a year ago or by a 14-man Boks in Marseille three weeks ago. It was a massive statement of depth and intent as a mix-and-match combination showed resolve and great composure to close out the game against an ultimately confounded home team.
A Springbok team shorn of backline regulars Handre Pollard, Lukhanyo Am and Cheslin Kolbe as well as pack stalwarts Lood de Jager and Pieter-Steph du Toit – and featuring their third-choice goal kicker in Faf de Klerk – ultimately commanded Twickenham after beginning cautiously but growing into the game with increasing confidence.
They scored two tries through the outstanding wing Kurt-Lee Arendse – scoring in a fifth successive test – and lock Eben Etzebeth to one from Henry Slade, while flyhalf Damian Willemse dropped two goals with Faf de Klerk kicking a conversion and three penalties.
South Africa’s Rugby World Cup dominance of the English pack resurfaced as scrum and maul were dominant with free-kick and penalties arriving as early as the first two scrums. De Klerk was wide with his first shot at goal from the penalty and England took the lead in the 11th minute when centre Owen Farrell was successful with his second kick at goal. Unbelievably his first attempt had gone wide from straight in front.
A neck tackle on No 8 Evan Roos presented De Klerk with an easier opportunity to level the scores mid0way through the half before Farrell – to general astonishment - missed another straightforward opportunity a couple of minutes later.
But that was to be England’s last sniff of first-half points as the Springboks dominated the second quarter.
A succession of lineout drives put the England pack on a warning and one from one such drive Siya Kolisi was held up over the line (Roos did manage to ground half a second after the whistle had gone).
England’s defence was resolute however and it rook a cool 30-metre drop goal from Willemse – his first for the Springboks - to edge his team into the lead for the first time on the half hour.
Three minutes later the game burst to life.
England had kicked frequently and from one such bomb on to Willemse just inside his own 22 the Bok backs cut England to pieces. The Bok flyhalf evaded the chasing Freddie Steward, fed the ever-alert Willie le Roux on his inside who in turn passed to Arendse on the right-hand touchline 40 metres out. The flying wing had Marcus Smith in front of him, but an inside-outside swerve saw him speed past the flat-footed defender without being touched.
Straight from the restart South Africa again broke from deep – dummying the box kick and breaking away through Willemse and Arendse – and although it didn’t lead to points the half ended on top with De Klerk kicking his second penalty to give his team an 11-point lead (14-3).
Willemse’s comfort in the No 10 jersey was writ large when he landed a second drop two minutes into the new half with cool assurance.
Farrell cancelled it out with his second successful penalty from in front after De Klerk strayed offside, but it was a rare moment of success for England as they started clearing their bench early to try and cancel out the Boks’ firepower up front.
It di not work initially as the building pressure from a succession of lineout drives led to a yellow card for not rolling away at a ruck by loosefoward Tom Curry. Two minutes later the numerical advantage was rewarded for the Boks. England were forced onto their goal-line and the outstanding Eben Etzebeth scored under the cross bar from a metre out.
De Klerk converted and then added a fabulous penalty from 50 metres to give the Springboks a three-score lead at 27-6. But the Springboks’ fortunes were about to change.
The Bomb Squad’s impact had been apparent with the new front row of Malcom Marx, Steven Kitshoff and Thomas du Toit extracting more scrum penalties from the English front row.
But Du Toit’s stay was short-lived as he was ed carded with 20 minutes to go for entering a tackle in an upright position and driving with his head and shoulder into England hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie.
That set up a tense final 20 minutes but the resolute, scrambling Bok defence was not to suffer the same fate as the All Blacks’ a week before at Twickenham.
Centre Henry Slade managed to cross in the period, but it was the only sighting the tryline England could manufacture as they trudged from the field, baffled, and beaten.
England 13 (3) – Try: Hery Slade. Conversion: Owen Farrell. Penalty goals: Farrell (2).
Springboks 27 (14) – Tries: Kurt-Lee Arendse, Eben Etzebeth. Conversion: Faf De Klerk. Penalty goals: De Klerk (3). Drop goals: Damian Willemse (2).