England reached a first World Cup final since 1995 as they survived a late Tonga fightback in Auckland to set up a meeting with holders Australia.
Wayne Bennett’s side were leading 20-0 with seven minutes remaining after tries from Jermaine McGillvary, Gareth Widdop and John Bateman. But Tevita Pangai Junior and Siliva Havili then crashed over at a sold-out Mount Smart Stadium.
Tuimoala Lolohea added a third to almost clinch it with seconds to go. It was an absolutely pulsating, nerve-shredding end to a match played in front of a passionate crowd who heavily favoured Tonga.
England will face Australia, who thrashed Fiji 54-6 in the other semi-final, in the final in Brisbane next Saturday, 2nd December. England’s last appearance in the final came 22 years ago with Denis Betts, now among the coaching staff, captaining the side in a 16-8 defeat by Australia at Wembley.
Every tournament since has ended in a semi-final defeat, each one by New Zealand, but it looked with seven minutes to go that England were cruising into next Saturday’s showpiece.
The Pacific Islanders came back from 16-2 down to beat New Zealand in the group stage and, backed by a vocal Tongan support in Auckland, almost engineered a comeback of even greater proportions. First, after 73 minutes, Junior edged his way over the England line to cross for a try that was eventually confirmed by the video referee – but it looked like nothing more than a well-deserved consolation. But the nerves began to kick in for Bennett’s side as Tonga kept the ball alive before Havili broke through several would-be tacklers to make the score 20-12.
Two minutes later and England’s advantage was reduced to two points. Lolohea again breaching England’s line to put Tonga within one score of their first ever World Cup final. England were in disarray and the crowd were absolutely roaring on Tonga. So Australia, for the 14th successive time, await in the final in Brisbane next Saturday.