By Mitch Phillips
YOKOHAMA, Japan (Reuters) – England produced one of their greatest-ever performances to end New Zealand’s bid for a third successive World Cup on Saturday, utterly outplaying them during an extraordinary 19-7 semi-final victory and reaching the final for the first time in 12 years.
England dominated from first to last, looking sharper, faster, stronger and more inventive in attack and fearsomely aggressive in defence and in the breakdown, where again the dynamic young duo of Sam Underhill and Tom Curry were immense.
New Zealand, who had not lost a World Cup match since the 2007 quarter-finals, barely threatened all night.
The victory swept England into their fourth final and first since 2007, where they will face either South Africa or Wales. They are seeking their second victory after 2003 when they became the first – and only – northern hemisphere country to triumph.
Coach Eddie Jones’s side scored after 90 seconds through centre Manu Tuilagi, built their lead through the nerveless goalkicking of recalled flyhalf George Ford, who scored 12 points, and were absolutely on top throughout.
“New Zealand are the gods of rugby so we had to take it to them and put them on the back foot as much as we could,” said Jones, who was in charge of Australia when they were beaten by England in the 2003 final.
“We have been subconsciously preparing for this game for two and a half years and when you ingrain habits in players it is easy to sustain.”
New Zealand, who had won 15 of the teams’ last 16 meetings, never got a foothold in the game. It is a long time since any All Black side was kept so at bay and they had no complaints after losing to England at a World Cup for the first time.
“Congratulations to England, they were deserved winners tonight,” said coach Steve Hansen. “There’s no shame in being beaten by them – though there is a lot of hurt.
“The team that took the game won the game, but we have no regrets. Sometimes sport isn’t fair but tonight it was.”
After showing their intent not to buy into the ‘All Black aura’ by defying the officials and lining up against the Haka in a V formation, England backed it up once the whistle had sounded, scoring a brilliant try through Tuilagi after a sustained, high-paced assault that swept the width of the pitch and had forwards and backs alike handling with mesmerizing skill.
That set the template for the half, with Owen Farrell and Ford full of speed and invention, fully vindicating Jones’s decision to restore them to the dual playmaker role.
The All Blacks never fired a shot and would have been relieved to have reached halftime only 10-0 down after Ford popped over a late penalty and an Underhill try was ruled out by the TMO.
The only previous time New Zealand had failed to score in the first half of a World Cup match was when they were beaten by Australia in the 1991 semis and, though a year ago they came back from 15-0 down at Twickenham to triumph 16-15, this time there was to be no recovery.
England suffered another TMO setback when Ben Youngs’ clever try was ruled out for a knock on but a Ford penalty made it 13-0 as the rattled All Blacks continued to make uncharacteristic mistakes.
They were then gifted seven points when, for the first time, England’s lineout malfunctioned and Jamie George threw the ball straight into the arms of Ardie Savea, who fell over the line.
England struck back immediately though, after a huge hit on Jordie Barrett by Underhill forced a knock-on and from the subsequent attack New Zealand offended on their line again and Ford landed the kick.
Even after injuries forced a major backline reshuffle, Jones’s side kept their shape in attack and Ford, taking on the kicking duties after Farrell looked to be struggling with a thigh problem after a big hit, added another three-pointer to give England breathing space.
With man of the match lock Maro Itoje leading by example, England maintained their extraordinary tackle workrate to the end as the All Blacks were ultimately left powerless to stop the Webb Ellis Cup slipping out of their iron grip.
(Editing by Tony Lawrence)