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Steven Finn took three wickets to keep England on course for victory in the first Test, but Jonny Bairstow's missed stumping of AB De Villiers gave South Africa faint hope in Durban.
Finn, a late addition to the touring squad after a foot injury, took out Dean Elgar, Hashim Amla and Faf Du Plessis as the Proteas closed the fourth day on 136 for four, 280 short of an improbable winning mark.
They will have little serious interest in hunting down a record 416 but the presence of master batsman De Villiers at least gives them a chance of surviving three sessions for the draw.
England set South Africa a record run chase of 416 to win the first Test in Durban, Jonny Bairstow to the fore with a superb 79 on the fourth afternoon.
The tourists finished 326 all out having lost regular wickets in pursuit of quick runs, leaving the hosts with an improbable victory target or, more realistically, four and a half sessions to save the game.
The previous best chase to win a Test at Kingsmead is the 340 made by South Africa against Australia in 2002, and the Proteas' previous best in history is the remarkable 414 they scored in Perth seven years ago.
John Stones believes team-mate Tom Cleverley deserves to win back a place in Roy Hodgson's England squad after the former Manchester United man scored a last-gasp winner for Everton against Newcastle.
I know as players you're biased to your own team-mates, but I think it's only right that I speak on behalf of a lot of the lads in our dressing room when I say Tom should be in the England squad - on current form at least.
He's playing terrifically well. Sometimes players don't get too many chances to get back into the squad, but I'm sure he would be delighted to.
He feels like an Everton player. He loves everything about the club - the training, the fans - and he's just fitted in so well. He's a great lad and the goal should top that off for Christmas.
James Anderson has been ruled out of the Boxing Day Test against South Africa with a calf strain.
Anderson underwent scans on a tight right calf muscle on Tuesday morning and they have confirmed he is not fit to feature in the series opener.
England hope their leading Test wicket-taker will be fit for the second match in Cape Town on January 2 but there are no guarantees.
Chris Robshaw will offer his support to his successor if relieved of the England captaincy as he concentrates on securing his place in Eddie Jones' team.
The Harlequins flanker is expected to be stripped of the leadership duties for the forthcoming RBS 6 Nations with Dylan Hartley favourite to be installed as skipper, providing he recovers from the concussion that has kept him out since November.
Robshaw is not Jones' preferred openside, instead the number six jersey is his most likely home and the 29-year-old knows he must focus on ensuring his ongoing presence in England's back row.
"I'm not sure what will happen with the captaincy, that's down to Eddie. If Eddie continues with me as captain I'd be hugely honoured," Robshaw said.
"If he decides to go to someone else then I'd respect that decision and fully back the person who comes in.
"As a player you want to be part of that team and my mentality is to first and foremost make sure I'm part of that team.
"That has to be the focus, to make sure I'm playing. Yes the World Cup didn't go according to plan, but it's still a very exciting group of players that England have.
"We didn't perform as well as could have, but there's a huge amount of potential there."
Steven Finn has been added to England's Test squad for the tour of South Africa after recovering from a foot injury.
The Middlesex seamer was left out of the initial 16-man squad after suffering bone stress in the early stages prior to the recent Pakistan series.
Finn's recovery went well enough for him to play in England Lions' last two Twenty20 matches against Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates, taking four wickets.
The 26-year-old will join England in Potchefstroom on Monday night, but is not being considered for Tuesday's warm-up match against a South Africa Invitational XI.
Indeed, he may yet have to sit out the second tour match in Pietermaritzburg and the first Test on Boxing Day before he is deemed ready for action.
In the meantime Chris Jordan, Chris Woakes and Mark Footitt will vie for the third seamer's role behind James Anderson and Stuart Broad.
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New Zealand outplayed England at the Olympic Stadium to keep the three-match rugby league Test series alive with an attritional 9-2 victory.
England, who were favourites to secure a series-clinching win after starting with a 26-12 triumph in Hull, defended heroically at times against their more enterprising opponents but were short of ideas in attack.
The Kiwis scored the only try through winger Shaun Kenny-Dowall two minutes into the second half and, although England thought they had drawn level with a try from James Graham controversially disallowed by the video referees, they could have no complaints about the final outcome.