Rugby

ALEX BYWATER: Sarah Hunter left emotional after England’s defeat to New Zealand in World Cup final

Staring into space and with her glassy eyes on the verge of tears, Sarah Hunter did well to somehow not lose emotional control as she attempted to sum up England’s World Cup final heartbreak.

Just over half an hour earlier, the Red Roses captain had watched from the sidelines as her team’s 30-match unbeaten run came to a shuddering halt at the worst possible moment.

This was Eden Park agony for England and ecstasy for hosts New Zealand.

England captain Sarah Hunter was left emotional following her side's World Cup final defeat

England captain Sarah Hunter was left emotional following her side’s World Cup final defeat

Sia’s Unstoppable blasted out at the home of Kiwi rugby as Black Ferns icon Ruby Tui led a record crowd for a women’s international in a celebratory Haka. Guided by their ‘professor’ coach Wayne Smith, unstoppable is exactly what New Zealand proved to be.

A 17th minute red card for England wing Lydia Thompson was crucial.

Simon Middleton’s side were a player light for more than an hour yet still they had one last shot of glory. When it mattered most, England’s usually dominant line-out faltered.

A 17th minute red card for England wing Lydia Thompson (left) proved to be crucial

A 17th minute red card for England wing Lydia Thompson (left) proved to be crucial

‘Sport can be cruel,’ said Hunter, somehow able to find some words amid the shattering pain.

‘We will hurt. It hurts to lose a World Cup final and especially in that manner, but I’m incredibly proud of what we’ve done as a team. So, so proud.’

It will be no consolation to England, but they took part in a World Cup final for the ages.

It was a titanic contest. It had everything. As adverts for the women’s game go, it could not have been topped. It is hard to think of a better deciding World Cup showdown in rugby history.

There were 11 tries – three from England hooker Amy Cokayne – and a just red card.

There was brute force and physicality as well as dexterity and sleight of hand. Both teams excelled in front of an Auckland crowd of 42,579.

Women’s rugby must and surely now will explode on the back of this match.

Simon Middleton said that he was unlikely to ever get over the defeat his side suffered

England head coach Simon Middleton remained positive despite his team’s defeat

‘It was a great game, amazing,’ said England head coach Middleton.

’We had a game plan and the red card changed it quite a bit. We sat here five years ago in the same situation but I felt much differently then. I feel hugely positive about what we’ve just witnessed.

‘A World Cup has to take the game forward and if that doesn’t take the game forward, there is something wrong. I’m pretty sure it will.’

This was the second consecutive World Cup in which England have been beaten in the final by New Zealand. This one is bound to sting and for some time.

Hunter, 37, won’t be at the next one.

Her final chance has now gone and her face showed it. Still, English rugby’s most capped player and a brilliant ambassador showed true class to the end.

‘One result doesn’t define the squad we are,’ Hunter said. ‘Hopefully we have inspired the next generation back home and given themselves something to be proud of.’

Hunter will not be at the World Cup but hopes the next generation have been inspired

Hunter will not be at the World Cup but hopes the next generation have been inspired

There was frustration for England but they can still take positives from the tournament

There was frustration for England but they can still take positives from the tournament

That they have.

Middleton had said before flying to New Zealand that anything other than taking the trophy back to Heathrow would be a ‘disaster’ given how dominant his team had become.

This World Cup has been no disaster, quite the opposite in fact for the women’s game as a whole. But it should also be seen as a big opportunity missed by England.

MATCH FACTS 

New Zealand: Holmes; Tui, Fluhler (Tubic 71), Fitzpatrick, Woodman (Leti-I’iga 11); Demant (capt), Cocksedge; Love (Murray 47), Ponsonby (Connor 47), Rule (Taumata 62), Roos (Ngan-Woo 64), C Bremner, A Bremner, Hirini, McMenamin (Simon 51)

Replacement not used: Bayler

Tries: Ponsonby 18, Leti-l’iga 25, 71, Rule 40, Fluhler 41, Murray 49.

Cons: Holmes 20, 26.

England: Kildunne; Thompson, Scarratt, Aitchison, Dow (Heard 66); Harrison, L Packer (MacDonald 51); Cornborough (Muir 74), Cokayne (Davies 74), Bern (Brown 74), Aldcroft (O’Donnell 27), Ward, Matthews, M Packer (Kabeya 51), Hunter (Cleall 41)

Tries: Kildunne 3, Cokayne 13, 32, 54, Packer 21.

Cons: Scarratt 4, 15, 33.

Referee: Hollie Davidson (Scotland).

Attendance: 42,579

Star player: Ruahei Demant (New Zealand)

Their first defeat since 2019 couldn’t have been more ill-timed.

‘That was the most phenomenal rugby moment of my life, standing out there and hearing that crowd chanting the names of these girls,’ said victorious Black Ferns boss Smith.

‘I love these women. I love what I had to do to get here.’

Ultimately, Thompson’s red card was crucial.

The England wing was rightfully dismissed after making a sickening head-on-head contact with Portia Woodman which knocked the Black Fern unconscious.

It was a certain sending off, not that Middleton admitted as much as emotions ran high.

England mauled New Zealand to death to score four tries through Cokayne and Marlie Packer after Ellie Kildunne had crossed for a fine opener. But their numerical disadvantage eventually proved their undoing as New Zealand’s brilliant attackers made good use of the extra space.

Woodman’s replacement Ayesha Leti-I’iga scored twice while Georgia Ponsonby, Amy Rule, the outstanding centre Stacey Fluhler and Krystal Murray also crossed.

When the Black Ferns stole an England line-out on their own line and the white maul faltered for the first time all tournament, a home victory was secured.

Smith’s decision to get a message to his players to ensure they competed at the line-out was the latest example of his coaching genius. He took over earlier this year charged with rebooting New Zealand and did exactly that. Their brand of rugby is a joy to watch and summed up by Tui.

‘I never thought in 100 years I’d be standing in Eden Park and 40,000 people would be chanting for the Black Ferns,’ said Smith. ’Something’s ignited this country around women’s rugby.

‘We’ve got to make it count.’

Middleton admitted: ‘Wayne is called a professor for a reason. He’s one of the best ever.’

New Zealand lost Kennedy Simon to the sin bin for a dangerous tackle on Abby Dow

New Zealand lost Kennedy Simon to the sin bin for a dangerous tackle on Abby Dow

Guided by their 'professor' coach Wayne Smith, New Zealand proved to be unstoppable

Guided by their ‘professor’ coach Wayne Smith, New Zealand proved to be unstoppable

New Zealand did lose Kennedy Simon to the sin bin for a dangerous tackle on Abby Dow and the England wing initially played on before then being removed for a head injury assessment.

Dow should have been taken off immediately.

Yet there was still time for England and when they were handed a line-out five metres from the New Zealand line, another maul try looked certain.

It didn’t happen. England were left heartbroken, their previous 30 straight wins made to feel almost irrelevant with one blow of the full-time whistle by Scottish referee Hollie Davidson.


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