TWICKENHAM, England -- South Africa edged England 16-15 on Saturday to complete an unbeaten tour of Britain and Ireland and almost certainly deprive the 2015 World Cup hosts from a top-four seeding.
In a test played in driving rain and marked by a preponderance of kicking, South Africa scored the only try through flanker Willem Alberts with flyhalf Patrick Lambie kicking perfectly for 11 points in front of 81,151 spectators at Twickenham.
England flyhalf Toby Flood landed two penalties but missed two kickable attempts, with replacement Owen Farrell successful with his only three shots at goal.
"I think we were very fortunate, it could have gone either way," Springboks coach Heyneke Meyer said. "I thought defence on both sides was awesome. Six months ago we would have probably lost this by 20 points so I will take the one point."
England coach Stuart Lancaster was proud his side threatened to win from 16-6 down.
"We go 16-6 and you look at the team and say 'Have we got the character to take on the team second best in the world, pull yourselves back into the game and give yourself a chance of winning?' and we did," Lancaster said.
"The pleasing thing is that you cannot ever question the character of this England team at the moment, you might have done it in the past but you can't do it now. The players deserve the credit for that."
England's faint hopes of overtaking France to the No. 4 ranking to avoid being drawn in the 2015 World Cup with one of the top three southern hemisphere teams appear over.
The Springboks won 16-12 against Ireland two weeks ago and followed with a 21-10 victory at Scotland, ending an up-and-down year in which they finished third in the Rugby Championship under new coach Meyer on a high note.
"We pride ourselves on our defence and we are up there with the best if not the best," Springboks centre Jean de Villiers said. "We've conceded one try in three games on this tour, the attitude and commitment the guys have shown is something that cannot be coached.
"It comes from within. It is your attitude in the collision. As a captain that makes me proud."
England's scrum was on top but hooker Tom Youngs had trouble finding his lineout targets, allowing the more conservative tactics of the Springboks to dominate.
The English made several half-breaks and showed a willingness to shift the ball despite the conditions, but South Africa's scrambling defence proved too obdurate and some onfield decison-making will again raise questions - such as opting for a shot at goal with only two minutes left despite trailing by four points.
Lancaster wouldn't criticize the decision by captain Chris Robshaw.
"We'll sit down as a group on Monday morning when the emotion has gone out of the game and reflect on it," he said. "We discuss all the decisions. Some we get right, some we don't get right and that's part of any side's development.
"We're just disappointed to have lost the game, a game we felt we could have won."
Although it was 6-6 by the 15th minute, Flood had missed two shots at goal, and he was punished for those misses when Lambie made it 9-6 in the 26th when England was penalized at a ruck.
Both sides frequently resorted to midfield bombs in the slippery conditions. England at least tried to find space on the fringes, whereas South Africa was content to play within itself and went to halftime leading 9-6.
When a try finally came three minutes after the restart, it was more by good fortune. South Africa's forwards dropped the ball as they hammered England's line but it went backwards, Youngs kicked it into Boks winger JP Pietersen and the ball ricocheted to England flanker Tom Woods on his line. He couldn't control it and Alberts snaffled the ball and scored.
Lambie converted from near the spot where Flood missed his two kicks, and the Springboks led 16-6.
The match came to life in the second half, as exemplified by a mismatched scuffle between giant Springboks lock Eben Etzebeth and Youngs. The rain made keeping your feet tricky, so changing the point of attack proved to be a reliable way of making ground. One such charge by Manu Tuilagi from Brad Barritt's inside ball brought the crowd to its feet.
As did Tuilagi's intercept and 40-meter charge before finding Ashton with a pinpoint pass. The speedy winger opted to pass to Brown, who picked up the ball from his ankles before his lack of pace told and he was swallowed by the defence on the Boks' quarter line.
England's lineout woes continued, compromising its hard-won territorial advantage and negating the driving maul as a weapon. Farrell, on for Flood, narrowed the gap to 16-9 with just under 20 minutes to play as England's passes started to stick. He made it 16-12 with 8 minutes left and 16-15 with only a couple to go.
But England ultimately ran out of time.
South Africa 16 (Willem Alberts try; Patrick Lambie 3 penalties, conversion), England 15 (Owen Farrell 3 penalties, Toby Flood 2 penalties). HT: 9-6.