England co-captain Owen Farrell almost went from hero to villain as an injury-hit side came from behind to beat South Africa 12-11 in their opening November international at Twickenham on Saturday.
Farrell’s penalty seven minutes from time, the third of four scored by an England team who didn’t manage a try, nudged the hosts into a one-point lead.
There was drama right at the end when, with 80 minutes played, Australian referee Angus Gardner consulted the television match official to see if fly-half Farrell had committed a no-arm tackle on Springbok replacement Andre Esterhuizen.
But the officials decided Farrell had made enough of a legal challenge not to award a penalty that could have seen South Africa snatch victory.
“It’s hard to keep your arms round when someone’s running that hard but thankfully there was a bit of common sense,” Farrell, sharing the leadership with hooker Dylan Hartley, told Sky Sports.
“They (South Africa) were definitely on top, they had a lot of ball and looked dangerous but we managed to stay in it.”
Disappointed Springbok captain Siya Kolisi added: “We made it tough for ourselves.
“We had so many chances that we could have taken. We know we are our own enemies,” admitted the flanker after what was South Africa’s sixth defeat in 11 Tests this year for all that they had beaten world champions New Zealand in Wellington in September.
South Africa dominated territory and possession in an opening 40 minutes where England lock Maro Itoje was sent to the sin-bin.
Yet they turned round a mere 8-6 in front, having scored the game’s only try through wing Sbu Nkosi, with fly-half Handre Pollard kicking a penalty to two from England counterpart Farrell.
England, despite being on the defensive for so long, took a 9-8 lead early in the second period when long-range kick specialist Elliot Daly landed a penalty from just inside the Springbok half.
Pollard hit back with another for the Springboks before grazing the post three minutes from time.
— Missing men —
England’s last match had seen them beat South Africa 25-10 in Cape Town in June, although the Springboks won the three-match series 2-1.
They kicked-off, however, with England coach Eddie Jones under pressure after a run of five defeats in their previous six Tests in total.
England were without injured forwards, Billy and Mako Vunipola, Chris Robshaw and Joe Launchbury as well as the suspended Nathan Hughes.
Meanwhile Farrell, usually an inside centre for England, was playing at fly-half for just the third time under Jones.
South Africa were missing the English club-based duo of fullback Willie le Roux and-half Faf de Klerk, with Wasps and Sale not obliged to release them for a fixture that fell outside World Rugby’s November window.
There was an encouraging early sign for England when, with impressive No 8 Mark Wilson running strongly, quick ball found its way to Henry Slade, with the outside centre’s grubber-kick only just going dead as wing Jonny May looked to collect.
But it was the Springboks who took a sixth-minute lead through Pollard’s 40-metre penalty.
Then a hanging cross-kick was superbly caught by a leaping Nkosi, but the right wing was held up just short of the try-line before a scrambling Itoje was sin-binned for being offside.
England, despite being a man down, were level when Farrell kicked a 45-metre penalty.
But after several handling errors, South Africa’s pressure told in the 33rd minute when, with left wing Aphiwe Dyantyi coming across to the opposite flank to keep England fullback Daly occupied, quick and smooth passing allowed Nkosi to scamper in at the corner for a try.
Pollard missed the conversion, and minutes later Farrell cut South Africa’s lead to 8-6 with a well-struck penalty from wide on the left.
The Springboks suffered a setback when lock Eben Etzebeth limped off early in the second half.
They then conceded a penalty just inside their own half and Daly booted England into a remarkable 9-8 lead.
Both England, and a Twickenham crowd that had found its collective voice again, were revitalised with Itoje leading a series of charges deep into South Africa’s 22.
On the hour mark, Farrell just fell short with a penalty and minutes later Pollard made it 11-9 to the Springboks.
Back came England, flanker Brad Shields losing possession in sight of a try.
Replacement prop Harry Williams then forced a scrum penalty and, from the left touchline Farrell landed a superb kick to leave England 12-11 ahead.
England face New Zealand at Twickenham next weekend, when South Africa play France in Paris.