England's brave World Cup defence faltered at the final hurdle as South Africa claimed the sport's biggest prize for a second time with a 15-6 victory in the tournament finale at the Stade de France in Paris.
The Springboks ended England's remarkable assault on world-title glory by landing the Webb Ellis Trophy for a second time in 12 years.
But England, 80-1 no-hopers after losing 36-0 to South Africa in the pool stages 36 days earlier, made them fight every inch of the way.
And they could feel aggrieved at the final scoreline, given that wing Mark Cueto saw a 43rd-minute corner try not awarded by the video referee, while Springboks centre Francois Steyn's penalty clincher came after a dubious decision for obstruction.
In the end though, not even Jonny Wilkinson could complete England's mission improbable against a South African side - brilliantly coached by Jake White - that fulfilled what they always felt was their destiny.
Full-back Percy Montgomery kicked four penalties, while Wilkinson booted a double for England, yet their hopes of becoming the first country to successfully defend the World Cup ultimately floundered.
It was a typically resilient England performance though, despite them ending the final with reserve scrum-half Peter Richards in the back-row after substitute flanker Joe Worsley went off injured.
England fielded four survivors from their 2003 World Cup final starting line-up - Wilkinson, skipper Phil Vickery, lock Ben Kay and full-back Jason Robinson, who played his 51st and final Test match before retirement.
South Africa, meanwhile, had one World Cup winner - prop Os du Randt - who was a member of their successful 1995 campaign on home soil.
The Paris temperature plummeted as kick-off approached, but conditions were perfect, given a firm pitch and little wind to affect goalkickers.
And England made a promising start, putting immediate pressure on South Africa's back three through some steepling kicks, but the Springboks took a seventh-minute lead when Montgomery slotted a penalty after centre Mathew Tait slipped inside his own 22 and then failed to release possession.
Wilkinson drew England level five minutes later, finding his range from the touchline, yet Montgomery continued the game's nip-and-tuck nature by landing his second penalty after England flanker Lewis Moody needlessly tripped Springboks fly-half Butch James.
Bath-bound James then tested England's defence with a neat chip and chase, but only after Wilkinson had arrowed an angled drop-goal attempt wide and Steyn drifted a long-range penalty attempt narrowly off target.
South Africa's renowned power game finally surfaced as half-time approached as they laid siege to England's line.
But the defending champions, epitomising the collective spirit that had taken them into a second successive final, refused to budge an inch.
Some ferociously-committed tackling kept the Springboks out when it looked certain as though they would score.
Montgomery though, who had his right knee bandaged after being on the receiving end of a crunching collision seconds earlier, stepped up to complete his penalty hat-trick with the final kick of an enthralling opening period.
Montgomery's strike took him past 100 points for the tournament, and trailing 9-3, England needed to regain a territorial foothold.
But Vickery, who appeared to take a couple of heavy blows to his left shoulder, did not reappear for the second half. He was replaced by Bath prop Matt Stevens, with flanker Martin Corry taking over leadership duties.
There was an embarrassing incident for tournament organisers when a spectator ran on to the pitch with a minute of the restart.
The real drama though, came just 60 seconds later as England looked to have forged ahead.
Tait made a brilliant 40-metre break from just inside South Africa's half, and with the Springboks' defence retreating, England recycled possession brilliantly, and Wilkinson's superb flick-pass looked to have put Cueto over.
But television match official - Australian Stuart Dickinson - had other ideas after a lengthy delay, deciding Cueto's knee grazed the touchline as he dived over.
Cueto's agonising shake of his head after the decision told its own story, yet Wilkinson kicked an immediate penalty, narrowing the gap to 9-6.
England saw Robinson limp off on 47 minutes - he failed to last the pool game against South Africa because of a hamstring injury - and Leicester centre Dan Hipkiss replaced him, with Tait switching to full-back.
It was a demoralising end to Robinson's England career, even though he would have been lifted by the ensuing standing ovation.
Montgomery and Steyn then slotted the kicks that ended England's reign as world champions, with South Africa counting down the clock in expert fashion and the men in white offering little attacking threat.
England (3) 6
Pens: Wilkinson 2
South Africa (9) 15
Pens: Montgomery 4, Steyn
England: J Robinson (unattached); P Sackey (Wasps), M Tait (Newcastle), M Catt (London Irish), M Cueto (Sale Sharks); J Wilkinson (Newcastle) A Gomarsall (Harlequins); A Sheridan (Sale Sharks), M Regan (Bristol), P Vickery (Wasps, capt), S Shaw (Wasps), B Kay (Leicester), M Corry (Leicester), L Moody (Leicester), N Easter (Harlequins).
Replacements: G Chuter (Leicester), M Stevens (Bath), L Dallaglio (Wasps), J Worsley (Wasps), P Richards (London Irish), T Flood (Newcastle), D Hipkiss (Leicester).
South Africa: P Montgomery (Natal Sharks); JP Pietersen (Natal Sharks), J Fourie (Golden Lions), F Steyn (Natal Sharks), B Habana (Blue Bulls); B James (Natal Sharks), F du Preez (Blue Bulls), O du Randt (Free State), J Smit (Natal Sharks, capt), CJ van der Linde (Free State), B Botha (Blue Bulls), V Matfield (Blue Bulls), S Burger (Western Province), J Smith (Free State), D Rossouw (Blue Bulls).
Replacements: B du Plessis (Natal Sharks), J du Plessis (Free State), J Muller (Natal Sharks), W van Heerden (Blue Bulls), R Pienaar (Natal Sharks), A Pretorius (Golden Lions), W Olivier (Blue Bulls).
Referee: Alain Rolland (Ireland).
Touch judges: Joel Jutge (France) and Paul Honiss (New Zealand).
Television Match Official: Stuart Dickinson (Australia)
Seven minutes - Percy Montgomery kicks simple penalty from in front of the posts for 3-0, after Mathew Tait holds on in tackle following his slip.
12 mins - Jonny Wilkinson kicks superb penalty from the diagonal to draw England level at 3-3, after Bryan Habana is penalised for not releasing in the tackle.
16 mins - Percy Montgomery kicks a penalty to put South Africa back in front, 6-3, after an England player - unspecified by referee Alain Rolland - is adjudged to have tripped Butch James following the fly-half's up-and-under.
17 mins - Wilkinson misses 25-yard drop-goal attempt from central position.
22 mins - Phil Vickery is penalised for joining in a ruck from the side, but Francois Steyn misses the resulting penalty from halfway.
36 mins - South Africa knock on a metre from England line, moments after Steyn splits defence with a mesmerising run down the middle.
40 mins - England penalised for hands in the ruck on the stroke of half-time, and Montgomery strokes over third successive penalty for 9-3.
43 mins - Mark Cueto dives over in left corner, after a great initial break by Tait, but 'try' controversially ruled out because winger's foot was in touch according to the video referee after much deliberation.
44 mins - An advantage was played in the lead-up to the disallowed try, and Wilkinson slots over penalty from 30 yards to reduce deficit to 9-6.
47 mins - Jason Robinson's stunning career comes to an end after he is forced off with what appears to be a groin injury.
50 mins - Montgomery boots another penalty after Martin Corry penalised for hands in the ruck. South Africa lead 12-6.
60 mins - Toby Flood just fails to latch onto Andy Gomarsall's chip into corner. The Newcastle fly-half shows disgust by shoving Montgomery into cameras behind the in-goal area.
62 mins - England penalised for obstruction, and Steyn kicks key penalty from halfway to give Springboks a strong 15-6 lead.
71 mins - Wilkinson misses long-range drop-goal attempt.
77 mins - Long spell of England possession ends when they fail to release at breakdown.
Jason Robinson - In last rugby union appearance, was safe under the high ball but given little chance to show attacking threat. Forced off injured in the 47th minute. 7
Paul Sackey - Dealt admirably with Bryan Habana in first half but given little licence to run. 7
Mathew Tait - Costly slip for Springboks' first penalty, but recovered superbly and was England's most dangerous runner. His amazing run preceded Mark Cueto's disallowed try. 8
Mike Catt - Used up-and-under to good effect in the first half, but was subbed off early in second. 6
Mark Cueto - Had a try disallowed for putting foot in touch. Did everything that was asked of him and strong in defence. 7
Jonny Wilkinson - Kicking out of hand was not the best, but booted his two attempts at goal. 7
Andy Gomarsall - Grew in confidence as match progressed and harassed Fourie Du Preez throughout. A couple of clever box kicks. 7
Andrew Sheridan - Typically powerful in the scrum, but not so ebullient in loose. 7
Mark Regan - Worryingly awry with first two line-out throws, but improved in that department and was a fierce competitor as always. 7
Phil Vickery - Grafted away at coalface, but not given an easy ride by Os du Randt, and was replaced at half-time by Matt Stevens. 6
Simon Shaw - Continued his scintillating tournament, showing great hands in the loose. 7
Ben Kay - Won fair share of line-out ball, his main task, but was up against a superb opponent in Victor Matfield. 6
Martin Corry - England's star back-rower, making a host of bullocking runs. As industrious as ever and did not deserve to be on losing side. 8
Lewis Moody - His battle with Juan Smith at the breakdown was thunderous - another gallant effort. 7
Nick Easter - A couple of trademark charges in loose and part of a tireless back-row effort, but not as ubiquitous as earlier in tournament. 7
George Chuter (on for Regan, 62 mins) - Missed his jumper at key line-out with 15 minutes left, but otherwise solid. 6
Matt Stevens (on for Vickery, at half-time) - Fresh legs and another good stint as impact substitute. 7
Lawrence Dallaglio (on for Easter, 65 mins) - The veteran had little chance to affect outcome of match. 6
Joe Worsley (on for Moody, 62 mins) - Had just eight minutes off bench before being replaced by Peter Richards, because of injury. 6
Peter Richards (on for Worsley, 70 mins) - Little chance to affect course of match. 6
Toby Flood (on for Catt, 51 mins) - Could not get on end of any of England's back-line moves, but will learn from this experience. 6
Dan Hipkiss (on for Robinson, 47 mins) - Evasive and powerful runner in his 30-minute cameo. 7
Percy Montgomery - Clean kicking from hand and flawless from four kicks from the floor. Superb positioning throughout and did not put a foot wrong all night. 9
JP Pietersen - Not given a chance to show speed out wide but strong in defence, keeping the busy Cueto at bay. 7
Jaque Fourie - Not at his scintillating best, but did what he had to in defence. 7
Francois Steyn - Missed an early penalty, but made great break late in first half. Kicked key long-range penalty in the 62nd minute. 7
Bryan Habana - Hardly seen as attacking threat, fortunately for England, but part of a grafting defensive effort. 6
Butch James - Great chip and take in first half, and turned England defence around with a couple of neat kicks to touch. 6
Fourie du Preez - Found Gomarsall a pest and not as dominant as he has been this tournament. 6
Os du Randt - One stand-out run midway through the first half from the old campaigner, who coped admirably in the scrum. 7
John Smit - Came off injured towards the end, but only after another strong shift. A great leader all tournament. 7
CJ van der Linde - Battled away in the front row, keeping Sheridan quiet. 7
Bakkies Botha - Strong in the line-out, as he has been for last six weeks. His partnership with Matfield was again key. 7
Victor Matfield - Always a threat on England line-out ball, and comfortable on his own. Yet another superb effort. 8
Schalk Burger - Thunderous at breakdown, and did not give an inch in defence. Happy to put body on line as always. 8
Juan Smith - One of the Springboks' unsung heroes this tournament, and another stellar showing here. Stole a couple of key balls, at the ruck and in line-out. 7
Danie Rossouw - Early knock-on showed nerves, but a workhorse at the important breakdown area. 6
Bismarck du Plessis (on for Smit, 72 mins) - Little chance to get into game in short spell as blood-bin replacement. 6
Wikus van Heerden (on for Rossouw, 73 mins) - No opportunity to impact on game. 6