England had spent the week working on areas where they had been deficient against Australia seven days before.
It worked in the sense that their scrummaging and rucking were considerably better, but elements of their game that had been impressive, such as the lineout, deteriorated. As South Africa extended their unbeaten run in this fixture to 11 matches, Stuart Lancaster's men found themselves not so much taking one step forward and another backward as shuffling sideways.
England resembled a team put together from a manual, based on instructions.
They reacted to the Australia defeat by rucking more aggressively, driving through after a tackle to clear space for the player who collected the ball, and Ben Youngs sent flat passes out from lineouts, allowing receivers to attack the gainline and stay on the front foot.
Chris Robshaw, whose place in the back row was questioned after the Wallabies won the battle for the ball on the floor, started the match at first receiver as England focused on getting over the gainline. The captain created the first chance of the match from the kick-off when Ruan Pienaar's clearance was blocked by Geoff Parling.
Patrick Lambie picked up the loose ball 10 metres from his own line but he did not have time to consider his options before he was tackled to the ground by Robshaw and South Africa preferred to concede a penalty than quick possession. The ploy paid off when Toby Flood, from the position wide on the right he would have had twice last week had England not opted to kick penalties to touch, pulled his kick wide.
England's determination to correct weaknesses had an adverse effect.
Parts of their game where they had been strong, such as the lineout, did not function as well. Tom Youngs took a 100 per cent throwing record into the match but it did not survive England's first lineout, which was deflected by Eben Etzebeth. Most of the hooker's throws against Australia had been to the front, but with two new jumpers in Joe Launchbury and Tom Wood, the calls were more varied and he struggled to find Wood.
England were also more reluctant to move the ball wide. The conditions played a part with rain falling for some five hours before the start, but when South Africa lost the ball on halfway two minutes before the interval, Ben Youngs quickly moved to the right and the Springboks were a man light in defence. The scrumhalf would have passed the week before but, given not so much the criticism of their over-ambition then but their lack of basic skills, he kicked into the opposition '22' and the move died.
England were reactive, as their team selection foretold. Mike Brown was chosen out of position on the wing, with his experience as a full-back deemed essential given South Africa's propensity to test back threes with his kicks.
The Harlequin sparked an early counter-attack, breaking through challenges from Pienaar and Willem Alberts after catching Pienaar's kick on halfway, but his lack of positional sense wide told in the second-half on one of the few occasions when England had a chance of a try.
South Africa had just taken a 16-6 lead and were looking to kill off the game when Pienaar's pass 10 metres from England's line was caught by Manu Tuilagi.
The centre ran into Springbok territory and passed to Chris Ashton outside him. The defence was scattered but Brown held his position out wide, forcing Ashton to pass long and the ball was just behind the left wing, who had to check his stride and the chance was lost.
England's selection had been too defensive, based too much on what they expected to be facing.
The upshot was a narrow defeat against opponents who were superior to England in one essential area: they knew what they were about. They had done just enough against Ireland and Scotland this month and it was the same in their third and final encounter.
The only try summed up the match: South Africa opted to kick a penalty in the right-hand corner into touch. They made a hash of the subsequent rolling maul and when they widened the point of attack, the second-row Juandre Kruger lost possession without knocking on. Ben Youngs hacked on only for a ricochet off JP Pietersen to take the ball to England's line where Wood knocked on, putting Alberts onside and the flanker only had to pick up to score.
England were 10 points down with 37 minutes left and if some of the intensity they had shown in the first-half had dimmed, they were looking to attack while the Springboks focused on retaining what they had. Flood went off on 45 minutes having been tested for concussion following a challenge by Alberts.
Flood had twice given England the lead with penalties in the first-half, but he missed two, which ultimately proved costly. Lambie, in contrast, kicked four out of four and Owen Farrell converted all of his three penalties.
Farrell's kicks came on 61, 72 and 78 minutes, the latter prompting much debate with England four points behind. Robshaw had dithered five minutes earlier before telling Farrell to kick for touch rather than goal from halfway and he calculated that England had enough time to get back upfield and either drop a goal or win a penalty.
Farrell claimed the three points and Pienaar's previous restart had been caught by Morgan over the touchline. There was to be no repeat: a South African caught the ball, albeit in a white shirt, Mouritz Botha, and the Springboks won the lineout and ran down the clock.
Scorers – England: O Farrell 3 pens; T Flood 2 pens. South Africa: W Alberts try; P Lambie 3 pens, 1 con
England: A Goode; C Ashton, M Tuilagi, B Barritt, M Brown; T Flood (O Farrell 45), B Youngs (D Care 67); B Morgan, C Robshaw (capt), T Wood; (J Haskell 53) G Parling, J Launchbury (M Botha 72); D Cole (D Wilson 75), T Youngs (D Paice 67), A Corbisiero (M Vunipola 53)
South Africa: Z Kirchner; J P Pietersen, J de Jongh, J de Villiers (capt), F Hougaard; P Lambie, R Pienaar; G Steenkamp (H van der Merwe 62), A Strauss (S Brits 74), J du Plessis (P Cilliers 40); E Etzebeth (F van der Merwe 69), J Kruger; F Louw, W Alberts (M Coetzee 56), D Vermuelen
Referee: N Owens (Wales)