South Africa beat 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 first five-eighths Patrick Lambie kicking perfectly for 11 points in front of 81,151 spectators at Twickenham.
England first five-eighths Toby Flood landed two penalties but missed two kickable attempts, with replacement Owen Farrell successful with his only three shots at goal.
England's faint hopes of overtaking France to the No. 4 ranking to avoid being drawn with one of the top three southern hemisphere teams now appear over.
The Springboks won 16-12 against Ireland two weeks ago and followed that up with a 21-10 victory at Scotland last weekend, ending a mediocre year in which they finished third in the Rugby Championship under new coach Heyneke Meyer.
Counterpart Stuart Lancaster's honeymoon period is over. While restoring morale and discipline following the World Cup debacle, he led England to a credible runner-up finish in the Six Nations and a hard-fought 2-0 loss in a three-test tour of South Africa. However last week's underwhelming loss to Australia and this reverse against the Springboks will doubtless bring pressure to bear on him.
England's scrum was on top but the lineout failed to produce reliable ball, 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 minutes left despite trailing by four points.
England started the brighter, its forwards frequently getting over the gain line. Lock Geoff Parling's charge-down and winger Mike Brown's bomb defusement and searching runs were acts of individual skill.
Flood made up for an early miss by slotting a penalty from an easier angle to make it 3-0 in the fifth minute. Lambie kicked two and Flood added one penalty to level the score at 6-6 by the 15th, with the teams conceding a penalty apiece in the opening two scrums of the match for not binding properly. Referee Nigel Owens offered no leniency for the sodden conditions and he warned both front rows. A dominant England scrum gave Flood a shot at goal, but he missed another kickable penalty.
Lambie punished Flood for that miss to make it 9-6 in the 26th when England was penalized at a ruck following several phases by the Springboks.
England center Brad Barritt was crunched by South Africa winger JP Pietersen in a tackle that veered dangerously close to a shoulder charge. He got up and played a part in the best move of the first half.
England halfback Ben Youngs found fullback Alex Goode with a clever reverse pass through the ruck, allowing him to elude several tacklers before being brought down 15 meters out. The ball went through the hands, including Barritt's, before a stabbing kick for Manu Tuilagi went dead in goal and the chance was lost.
While England's scrum was on top the same couldn't be said for the lineout, with hooker Tom Youngs having trouble finding his targets.
England had the better of the few chances in a sterile first half, with both sides often using the midfield bomb due to the slippery conditions. The hosts 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 than anything else. South Africa's forwards dropped the ball as they hammered England's line but it went backwards, Youngs kicked it into Pietersen and the ball ricocheted to England flanker Tom Woods on his line. He was unable to secure possession and Alberts was on hand to snaffle the ball and touch it down.
Lambie nailed the conversion 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 breaking out 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 Tuilagi from 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 soon afterward. 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 any 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 then 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.