LONDON (Reuters) - England’s new-look side delivered a performance full of character to withstand an early onslaught and come back to beat South Africa 12-11 with four penalties in a topsy-turvy test at Twickenham on Saturday.
South Africa led 8-6 at halftime through a try for winger Sibusio Nkosi but they should have been much further ahead as England showed nothing in attack but stayed in range with two Owen Farrell penalties.
England were transformed in the second half, with their backs finally getting the ball in hand and Farrell and Elliot Daly providing the points with the boot.
Flyhalf Handre Pollard had the chance to win it for South Africa with another long-range penalty three minutes from time but his effort skimmed off the outside of the post while England’s full-time celebrations were briefly halted while the referee consulted the TMO to look at a Farrell tackle.
He duly ruled it legal - just - to give England a morale-boosting win after losing five of their previous six full internationals, including a 2-1 series defeat in South Africa.
“We got through 80 minutes, there was sharp resistance and toughness in our play so I’m really pleased with out boys. We got a bit excited too early at the end though, I’ll learn from that. I forgot about the TMO,” England coach Eddie Jones said.
“We just stuck at it, we stayed in the arm wrestle. We did the simple things well, we had to keep them on the back foot and we did that.”
The Springboks had beaten New Zealand away and were desperately close last month to completing a double over the world champions at home in the Rugby Championship.
However, they were without several key players on Saturday, most notably scrumhalf Faf de Klerk, due to the game falling outside the international window.
They made light of those absences in an impressive first half, though, when centre Damian de Allende proved a powerful and elusive runner as they mixed up their attack to good effect.
England survived the early sin-binning of lock Maro Itoje and had to defend for their lives to keep the score to 3-3 after half an hour’s play in which their scrum was constantly under pressure.
But their line was eventually broken when De Allende cut through midfield to set up slick handling that sent winger Nkosi over in the right corner.
Farrell’s second penalty closed the gap and South Africa will have jogged off wondering how they were only two points ahead when England had not once ventured into their 22 and given away a slew of penalties.
It was a South African offence 10 minutes into the second half that allowed Daly to land a monster three-pointer to, somewhat remarkably, put England ahead.
Twickenham was suddenly alive and England responded with their best spell of the match as Itoje, Farrell, Daly and Henry Slade made inroads and Jonny May skipped past four tacklers in a brilliant run out of defence.
However, Farrell missed another shot at goal and Pollard restored his team’s lead with a 48-metre penalty despite the Springboks barely crossing halfway.
Eight minutes from the end England’s forwards, with a raft of inexperienced replacements on board, produced a monumental scrum to win a penalty wide out which Farrell, still limping after taking a massive hit, duly slotted over.
Pollard missed his late shot but there was still time for more drama as South Africa launched a series of attacks. England repelled them past the 80-minute mark and kicked the ball dead.
As most of the 82,000 crowd erupted the referee called for a TV replay of a huge Farrell tackle on Andre Esterhuizen. After an agonising wait he ruled that the flyhalf had made just enough of an effort to wrap an arm to make it legal, and blew for time.
“If that’s legal maybe we should all tackle like that because I haven’t seen Andre knocked back like that, it was very effective,” South Africa coach Rassie Erasmus said.
England now prepare to face the All Blacks next week, for the first time in four years, while South Africa will welcome back their absentees to take on France in Paris.
They will, however, be without talisman lock Eben Etzebeth who sustained an ankle injury on Saturday that could rule him out of the rest of the tour.
Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Martyn Herman and Ed Osmond