England’s dreams of reaching the Women’s Rugby World Cup final were dashed by the unstoppable strength of Mele Hufanga as New Zealand cruised to a 20-6 win at York.
The hosts led through 19-year-old full-back Fran Goldthorpe and gave their mostly full-time opponents a daunting challenge before succumbing to two crucial tries early in the second half.
They were both shaped by 28-year-old center Hufanga’s soaring runs, creating tries from Otesa Pule and Brianna Clark that ultimately secured a sixth straight World Cup defeat for the Kiwis, who will progress to the final of Saturday against Australia.
But it was a mark of the extraordinary progress made in the domestic women’s game that this loss was a far cry from the 52-4 defeat England suffered against the same team at the same stadium in Sydney in 2017.
In front of a raucous crowd of 7,139, England fought valiantly to the finish, keeping New Zealand scoreless for the final half hour in which the irrepressible Amy Hardcastle came closest to bring his team back into the race.
England knew they needed a good start and they got it within five minutes when the impressive Georgia Roche fed Goldthorpe who split the New Zealand line.
Tara-Jane Stanley added a tough conversion and England fought to consolidate their advantage behind a series of crisp tackles that kept the favourites, and in particular their fearsome prop Amber Hall, at bay in the middle.
However, the Kiwis’ formidable power down the right finally paid off as Hufanga crashed to score and then Raecene McGregor just about stretched to score his second try.
The pressure proved relentless, but England defended admirably, backed by the bravery of Hardcastle and the raw strength of St Helens prop Vicky Whitfield, who continued the impact she had in the win in the group stage against Papua New Guinea.
It took an extraordinary effort from England to reach half-time just two points behind at 8-6, and it seemed inevitable that that effort would start to be felt early in the second half.
Hufanga, the 28-year-old with a high-level rugby union background, proved almost unplayable after the break, her searing run allowing Pule to score New Zealand’s third try that Apii Nicholls has converted.
Shortly after, it was Hufanga again who burst through the England line before the ball went wide left for Clark to land, Nicholls’ conversion establishing a 20-6 lead.
It was a measure of England’s determination that they managed to keep New Zealand, particularly Hufanga, who had never played for the Kiwi Ferns before the tournament, scoreless for the rest of the game.