London - 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 flyhalf 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.
The Springboks 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.
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, having lost five of their last six Tests in total and 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 flyhalf for just the third time in the Red Rose reign of coach Eddie 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 designated window for November internationals.
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 after England prop Kyle Sinckler strayed offside.
South Africa then won a line-out 10 metres from England's tryline.
A hanging cross-kick was superbly caught by a leaping Nkosi, but the right wing was held up just short of the try-line.
However, Itoje was then 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.
South Africa were 8-3 ahead, with Pollard missing the conversion, but minutes later Farrell cut that lead to two points with a well-struck penalty from wide on the left.
The Springboks suffered a setback early in the second half when lock Eben Etzebeth limped off.
South Africa 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 on the edge of his range after Itoje was impeded at a line-out.
That miss was compounded minutes later when Pollard, after an England ruck infringement, kicked a long-range penalty to make it 11-9.
Back came England, flank Brad Shields losing possession under challenge 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 world champions New Zealand at Twickenham next weekend, when South Africa play France in Paris.
15 Elliot Daly, 14 Jack Nowell, 13 Henry Slade, 12 Ben Te’o, 11 Jonny May, 10 Owen Farrell (co-captain), 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Mark Wilson, 7 Tom Curry, 6 Brad Shields, 5 George Kruis, 4 Maro Itoje, 3 Kyle Sinckler, 2 Dylan Hartley (co-captain), 1 Alec Hepburn
Substitutes: 16 Jamie George, 17 Ben Moon, 18 Harry Williams, 19 Charlie Ewels, 20 Zach Mercer, 21 Danny Care, 22 George Ford, 23 Chris Ashton
15 Damian Willemse, 14 S’bu Nkosi, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Aphiwe Dyantyi, 10 Handre Pollard, 9 Ivan van Zyl, 8 Warren Whiteley, 7 Duane Vermeulen, 6 Siya Kolisi (captain), 5 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Steven Kitshoff
Substitutes: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Thomas du Toit, 18 Wilco Louw, 19 RG Snyman, 20 Lood de Jager, 21 Embrose Papier, 22 Elton Jantjies, 23 André Esterhuizen