England shot to the top of the World Rugby Men’s Rankings for the first time in more than 15 years – and into the final of Rugby World Cup 2019 – after a superb 19-7 victory against New Zealand at the International Stadium Yokohama.
It was a result that no-one had seen coming, even though England turned in an impressive display to see off Australia 40-16 in the quarter-finals.
This was, after all, a New Zealand side that had won back-to-back world crowns and was on a run of 18 consecutive victories in the tournament dating back to their shock quarter-final loss to France at RWC 2007.
Itoje stands tall
Firmly in control of territory and possession, thanks to the Herculean efforts of their pack, notably player-of-the-match Maro Itoje, England’s joy at being 10-0 up at half-time was tempered by the realisation the game should have been put to bed.
Against a side of New Zealand’s quality, such a lead could be wiped out as quickly as an Anton Lienert-Brown sidestep, as England found out to their cost when they blew a 15-point cushion against the All Blacks at Twickenham the previous November.
Manu Tuilagi got England off to a dream start when he raced over in the second minute – the fastest-ever try against New Zealand in the tournament’s history – and Owen Farrell converted, but further scores from Ben Youngs and Sam Underhill were ruled out following a TMO referral.
England could only add a long-range penalty from George Ford on the stroke of half-time, despite their dominance, and there was a growing sense among the large English contingent in the 68,843 crowd that it may not be enough.
Only once before had the All Blacks failed to score a single point in the first half of a Rugby World Cup game, against Australia back in 1991, and everyone inside the ground expected a black-lash.
Ford eased those fears slightly when he nudged England 13-0 ahead with his second penalty but Ardie Savea’s converted try direct from an overthrown lineout put the defending champions right back in it.
England’s magnificent defence was more than a match, though, for anything that the All Blacks could throw at them, and as ill-discipline and desperation crept into the defending champions’ play, Ford closed out the victory with two further penalties.
On death row
"What we've done is earn another week in the comp, which is great. I thought our tactical discipline was great, our defensive work-rate was good. I thought when we had opportunities to attack, we attacked well,” said England head coach Eddie Jones.
"You want to go right to the death and we're in the death now. We've got another week to enjoy ourselves and work as a team. Our players made a commitment to each other that they'd enjoy the World Cup and I think we're seeing that.
"Whenever you play against New Zealand, you're never happy. You might beat them on the scoreboard, but you never really beat them. They kept coming at us and we needed to dig deep and a find a bit extra.”
Jones’ rival, Steve Hansen, was magnanimous in defeat. "Congratulations to England. They were deserved winners. You had two very good sides going at each other and the team that took the game won the game.
“We have to take that on the chin and so do the people back home."
England were unable to raise themselves for the final against South Africa, losing 32-12 in a game where they were totally outplayed, while the All Blacks signed off with a 40-17 win against Wales in the bronze final.