It was a painfully familiar story at Twickenham on Saturday as England failed their latest audition to join the world’s best.
Just as they did against New Zealand last weekend, Stuart Lancaster’s side flirted with what would have been a priceless victory over one of the sport’s powerhouses ahead of next year’s Rugby World Cup – but once again they came up short.
But instead of being outplayed as they were by the All Blacks, this time England gifted the Springboks their 12th straight success against them and so the frustration of seven days ago will intensify into anger.
The hosts dominated territory and possession in the first half but were unable to conjure the electrifying moments of a week ago. They did not lack effort but they were woefully short of ideas with ball in hand with a pedestrian attack guilty of not asking enough questions of South Africa’s disciplined defence.
The home side’s execution also let them down – and not for the first time.
The heavy rain that greeted the teams clearly did not help but greater care must be taken to protect hard-won ball in such conditions – a fact that will no doubt be hammered home to the likes of Kyle Eastmond and Billy Vunipola in the coming days.
Fly-half Owen Farrell has no such excuse as the bad weather had made way for blue skies when he put a simple re-start out on the full midway through the second half to invite further scrutiny of his form.
There were other causes for concern. Lock Dave Attwood’s decision to back himself to make the line rather than utilise the pace of winger Anthony Watson outside him with the line looming will give him as many sleepless nights as his newborn baby.
The best sides in the world simply do not butcher such chances – and they also do not invite trouble as Farrell did in the opening exchanges.
His decision to attempt to run the ball from his own 22 with little support suggested England entered this game with a bold intention to play and that their first-choice No.10 was not short of confidence.
But it was high risk rugby at a crucial stage of the game and came at a cost with South Africa eventually earning a penalty that fly-half Pat Lambie kicked to give his side an important foothold in the game.
Scrum-half Danny Care also ensured he will never forget his 50th Test cap after a loose pass in midfield was pounced upon by South Africa’s Jan Serfontein for the opening try of the game.
Hooker Dylan Hartley was guilty of an equally risky play when he opted to trample over South Africa No.8 Duane Vermeulen on the hour mark.
His excessive use of the boot rightly saw him yellow carded for third time in his international career and left his team a man down, and without a key presence, with the game in the balance. His side only leaked a penalty in his absence but that does not excuse his latest transgression.
England are desperately short of Test caps when compared to their major rivals – with Care and Hartley the only players in the matchday squad to have reached a half century of internationals appearances. In contrast, South Africa fielded nine such players today including a handful of World Cup winners.
As a result, England’s cause is not helped when their two most experienced players fail to set the standard in terms of performance and temperament.
Chris Robshaw is England’s captain but this team needs more than one leader and they look increasingly short of a commanding voice behind the pack.
Farrell is yet to find his best form this season and is not calling the shots as Lancaster would hope and the introduction of George Ford for the final fifteen minutes underlined this problem and the need to give the Bath playmaker more game time.
With ten minutes to go, England earned themselves a penalty in the Springboks’ half and battled in vain for a couple of minutes to unlock their rival’s defence before coming back for the earlier penalty.
That kick went to the corner which begs the question why the England did not engineer it so the penalty was awarded earlier and the kick to the corner was executed with that precious time still on the match clock?
England had clearly hoped to conjure something akin to Jonny May’s sensational score last weekend but they only briefly rediscovered the tempo that had scared the All Blacks with two converted tries in four frenetic second half minutes.
It was enthralling stuff but it was the Springboks that produced arguably the moment of the game.
Lambie’s delicate chip over the England defence was met by on-rushing fullback Willie le Roux who drew the attention of Vunipola and Mike Brown before offloading to scrum-half Cobus Reinach for the easy score.
England have now lost five-in-a-row for the first time since the Andy Robinson era in 2006 and they have won just two of 13 clashes against Australia, New Zealand and South Africa since Lancaster took charge.
The stunning victory over New Zealand in 2012 is now a distant memory as is their win over Australia last November. That makes England’s date with the Wallabies in two weeks time a huge game – even more so considering those two sides will also be pool rivals at the World Cup.
Before that, Samoa await England next weekend where we are likely to see a much-changed England line-up but Lancaster must be careful as this latest result means that another defeat would further erase the good will he has amassed to this point and trigger a real crisis at the worst possible time.
Will we see a much changed England line-up for Samoa? Are England lacking the clinical edge to take their chances against the world’s top teams?