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Jean de Villliers marked his debut as captain with a crucial second-half try to help the Springboks edge out England 22-17 in the first Test of their three-match series at Kings Park in Durban on Saturday.
Flyhalf Morne Steyn scored the remaining 17 points for South Africa, including an exchange of two penalties apiece with Owen Farrell as the sides were level at 6-6 at half-time.
The hosts, who looked slightly disjointed throughout the opening 40 minutes, upped the tempo after the break to also give new coach Heyneke Meyer a winning start to his reign.
The Boks started out promisingly enough against an English team also with a new coach – as Stuart Lancaster was in charge for the first time after being appointed on a full-time basis.
But it was the visitors who went in front via a sixth minute penalty from Farrell after debutant lock Eben Etzebeth conceded a penalty at the ruck.
South Africa hit back when a Steyn up-and-under was not cleanly gathered, allowing some pressure to form with England then caught off-side, and Bulls flyhalf was able to level the scores.
Francois Hougaard then broke after a clever dummy just inside the 22, before offloading to Pierre Spies, who was caught two metres short of the line by Manu Tuilagi.
From the subsequent clearance, Bryan Habana cut through the middle but his attempted off-load, which would have put Zane Kirchner away, was poor.
England took back the lead when Marcell Coetzee entered a ruck from the side and Steyn levelled after the tourists were again off-side, bringing the scores to 6-6 after 30 minutes.
Steyn could have had the final say of the half after a penalty was given for a scrum infringement but his attempt drifted wide.
After the restart Patrick Lambie was introduced to replace Kirchner and South Africa eventually broke through in the 48th minute.
The try came after Habana and De Villiers combined on the left, with Jannie du Plessis bursting through the middle, before the ball eventually made its way to Steyn on the right as he dived in.
The conversion was missed, but the pressure kept coming from the Springboks and, after twice coming close, De Villiers eventually gave them some breathing space when he took a pass from JP Pietersen on the right and powered over for a 20th international try after 60 minutes.
Steyn uncharacteristically missed his third kick of the evening, with two quick Farrell penalties making it a four-point game with 14 minutes to play.
Steyn finally hit the target with another two penalties, taking that lead to 10.
England did manage to cross the whitewash, just after the final hooter when Ben Foden collected a low pass on the right to squeak into the corner.
South Africa: Tries: Morne Steyn, Jean de Villiers. Penalties: Steyn (4).
England: Try: Ben Foden. Penalties: Owen Farrell (4). – Sapa