Gallant in the face of the all-conquering All Blacks, dazzling against Australia and resourceful versus Samoa, England's autumn resurgence was clipped by the suffocating Springboks.
England remain a work in progress and by no means the finished article they looked against Australia two weeks earlier.
That remains the high point of the Martin Johnson era, a performance that at last pointed to a bright future.
This, however, was England at their most restricted, a reality brought home by the reigning world champions, who came into this game as underdogs after a poor Tri-Nations and defeat to Scotland at Murrayfield.
They ended it having extended their victorious streak against England to seven, not in the style accustomed to World Cup winners but in a defiant, stifling manner that suggests any team with designs on the Webb Ellis trophy in New Zealand next autumn will have to work damn hard to prise it out of their grasp.
South Africa removed some of the gloss from England's brilliant victory over Australia by not allowing the Red Rose to blossom in all areas of the pitch as the Wallabies had done to their cost in the second game of November.
The Springboks kicked England into submission and dominated them up front, squeezing the life out of the ambitious hosts, who persisted with the liberating style that won plaudits against Australia but was exposed here.
Peter de Villiers's side kicked intelligently to put repeated pressure on the likes of Ben Foden, Chris Ashton and Mark Cueto while England never really exploited the tourists' inexperienced back three.
England's cause was not helped by the loss of Toby Flood on 34 minutes. The Leicester fly-half had been the under-stated star of the autumn, embodying the new England with performances that finally hint that the midfield future does not require another coming from Jonny Wilkinson.
But despite landing both his early penalties – continuing his unerring accuracy with the boot – he was taken off with a bang on the head, and replacement Charlie Hodgson never really got the chance to dominate proceedings with his boot as the Springboks bossed territory.
Tom Croft had already headed to the showers, clutching his shoulder on 22 minutes – later confirmed as a fracture – as the physical intensity of a Test match against the fierce world champions was illustrated.
That early enforced replacement at least gave Leeds' Hendre Fourie the chance to play against the country of his birth, and he did not disappoint. The 31-year-old openside flanker came into the No 6 position but was undaunted, hungrily following the ball and threatening his countrymen at the breakdown.
Fourie was in good company. England as individuals played well. Collectively as an attacking force they were blunted and in the pack, they were second best to the power and experience of hooker Bismark Du Plessis and unrelenting locks Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield.
Defensively, England performed admirably in a middle section of the match dominated by the green shirts, who pounded at the home line without joy until they finally pierced it in the 59th minute when the ball was moved from left to right in front of the posts until it reached replacement forward Willem Alberts, who shrugged off Ben Youngs's attempted tackle and scurried over.
That broke a 6-6 deadlock which would have been an earlier advantage for the Springboks had Morne Steyn not missed two of his four first-half penalties.
England spent so much time on the back foot in that spell that the possession count showed the visitors had enjoyed 75 per cent of the ball and had forced the hosts into twice as many penalties as they had conceded.
Johnson later lamented that Test opponents of the highest calibre can not be afforded so many opportunities, but even when his side emerged with the ball – drawing a yawning Twickenham to its feet – desperation had replaced their dynamism and they lacked cohesion.
Mike Tindall and Lewis Moody broke down the left shortly after the interval to set up England's one real spell of sustained pressure, but it came to nothing when the ball was lost. After Steyn kicked another penalty, Otley-born Tindall and Fourie both thought they had a try when emerging from a pile of bodies, only to have come up just short.
And then from a seemingly innocuous move down the left 10 minutes from time, Lwazi Mvovo brushed aside a weak tackle from Ashton and raced through from 25 metres.
Ashton had earlier been on the receiving end of a crunching tackle that left him almost concussed, and he was still unsure what day it was when Mvovo danced past.
Foden intercepted CJ Van Der Linde's pass inside his own half and ran it back for the try his autumn efforts warranted. But in his haste to get the ball back quickly, Tindall booted the simple conversion against the posts.
England: Foden, Ashton (Banahan 73), Tindall, Hape, Cueto, Flood (Hodgson 34), Youngs (Care 62); Sheridan, Hartley (Thompson 73), Cole (Wilson 68), Lawes (Shaw 68), Palmer, Croft (Fourie 22), Moody, Easter.
South Africa: Kirchner (Jacobs 48), Aplon (Hougaard 60), F Steyn, De Villiers (Aplon 68, Lambie 79), Mvovo, M Steyn, Pienaar; Mtawarira, B Du Plessis, J Du Plessis (Strauss 79), Botha (Van Der Merwe 67), Matfield, Stegmann (Alberts 48), Smith, Spies.
Referee: G Clancy (Ireland).
Scorers – England – try Foden; pens Flood 2.
South Africa – try Alberts, Mvovo; cons M Steyn; pens M Steyn 3.
Hero: Ben Foden
His late try was reward for his work all November and he did well under the high balls South Africa repeatedly sent his way. Courtney Lawes and Mark Cueto also impressed.
Villain: Bismark Du Plessis
Has to be one of the great names in world sport, also a handy performer as he showed in the scrum and in his accurate lineouts. One of many strong performers in the Springbok pack.
59th minute: After near-total territorial dominance for almost 40 minutes, Willem Alberts finally breaks England's resistance in the corner.
George Clancy: Added to England's ire by awarding penalties to South Africa. Very whistle-happy.
Many positives to take from the entire month for England, and though this was a reality check, Martin Johnson's men have re-established themselves as a force to be reckoned with.
Quote of the day
The autumn was a mixed bag really. We know what we are capable of when we do it right. We are a top team. But great teams can back it back, back it up, back it up.
– England's Ben Foden on what separates the best from the rest
Wales v England, Six Nations Championship, Friday, February 4.