England collapsed to an agonising 16-15 defeat against South Africa at the Stade de France as they allowed a place in Saturday’s World Cup final against New Zealand to slip from their grasp.
Steve Borthwick’s men led by nine points in the final quarter but their wet-weather masterclass began to fade as the ‘Bomb Squad’ made their presence felt for the Springboks, especially in the scrum.
It was on the back of their set-piece ascendancy and the generalship of replacement fly-half Handre Pollard that the tables turned in a sodden Paris.
RG Snyman barged over for the only try of the match in the 70th minute and Pollard nailed a tricky conversion, setting up heart-stopping finish to a Test that was enthralling throughout.
The world champions were still two points behind but up stepped man-of-the-match Pollard to land the killer blow with two minutes left, nailing a penalty from just inside England’s half.
England’s players sank to their knees at the final whistle, their hearts broken having given their all in a rematch of the 2019 final despite being distant outsiders, and it was an especially cruel moment for Owen Farrell given his outstanding night.
Farrell was at the heart of many of his side’s best moments and although the captain drew the now customary boos when his name was read out on the PA system pre-match, he replied by drawing first blood with a penalty.
Breakdown and line-out success, as well as Ben Earl blasting off the base of the scrum, were further early wins until a promising drive downfield ended with Farrell kicking his second penalty.
Three times in a row England turned over South African line-out drives, winning a penalty on the third of them to relieve the pressure that was building on their line.
Every aspect of an arm wrestle of a contest was being won by England, but they were also their own worst enemies as they gave away three needless penalties, one of them for a moment of petulance from Farrell that allowed Manie Libbok to land three points.
His eyes bulging, Farrell was playing on the edge and had to be escorted away from referee Ben O’Keeffe, but he regained his composure to re-establish the six-point lead.
Libbok became the fall guy for South Africa’s woes when he was replaced in the 32nd minute by Pollard in the hope the 2019 World Cup winner would bring greater control.
Pollard’s first involvement was to boot a penalty and growing tension was evident as errors crept into both sides, but when Farrell found the target for the fourth time, England entered the break with a deserved 12-6 lead.
Rookie Leicester lock George Martin had been at the forefront of red rose resistance through his savage tackling and as the rain continued to fall there was no prospect of the game opening up.
Scrum-half Cobus Reinach and full-back Damian Willemse were the next to be pulled by South Africa, who now had Faf de Klerk and Willie le Roux on the field, and then Eben Etzebeth followed them into the dugout.
The changes were a reflection of England’s control and just as the Springboks appeared to be clawing their way into contention, Farrell rifled over a sensational drop-goal.
England’s captain was striking gold with every touch as a wicked crossfield grubber caused Kurt-Lee Arendse to fumble, but South Africa were beginning to harvest penalties at the scrum.
Suddenly the Springboks went up a gear, their pack pouring forwards from a line-out for Snyman to score.
It was now all South Africa, who had discovered a new lease of life, and when the moment for glory came, Pollard stepped up to deliver his monster penalty.