England signed off on 2021 in style as they outfoxed and outfought the 2019 Rugby World Cup final conquerors South Africa 27-26 in front of a rapturous Twickenham crowd.
England had leaped out to a 17-6 lead midway through the first half as Manu Tuilagi and Freddie Steward crossed for the hosts.
But Handre Pollard’s boot kept the Boks in the fight as they turned the screw after the break.
Raffi Quirke finished off an incisive attack for England, but the world champions’ mix of rock-solid mentality and physicality seemed to have won it when Makazole Mapimpi went over out wide on 69 minutes.
However, England fought to the death, as head coach Eddie Jones predicted they would have to, and fly-half Marcus Smith held his nerve to slot the decisive penalty in the 79th minute.
After a miserable fifth-place finish in the Six Nations earlier this year, the scalp of the world number one and world champions is the biggest validation yet of the head coach’s tactical reboot.
As Smith finally booted the ball dead after a nerve-jangling wait for referee Andrew Brace to rule on an aerial contest in the shadow of England’s posts in the final passage of play, it felt like a landmark win.
One that points the way away from 2019’s defeat in Yokohama and towards the promise of what might be in France in 2023.