AUCKLAND, New Zealand (AP) — Replacement winger Ayesha Leti-I’iga scored her second try in the 72nd minute as defending champion New Zealand rallied to beat top-ranked England 34-31 on Saturday in a breathtaking final to the Women’s Rugby World Cup.
Hooker Amy Cokayne earlier had scored three tries at the heart of England’s trademark rolling maul as the Red Roses overcame a red card in the 18th minute to lead 31-29 with time running out.
But New Zealand, also down to 14 players after a yellow card to co-captain Kennedy Simon, produced a superb try to Leti-I’iga to win back the lead and held on to delight a crowd of more than 40,000 at Eden Park, a world record for a women’s rugby match.
England, on a world-record streak of 30 consecutive wins, had two chances to score from its potent lineout drive in the final moments of the match. But New Zealand first held it out, then won a lineout turnover after the fulltime siren to save the match.
“Most people probably don’t even know that last year we went on a northern tour and we got (thrashed) and (I’m proud of) the way that the players have turned themselves around,” New Zealand co-captain Ruahei Demant said. “We’ve sacrificed so much to get one chance in a lifetime to win a World Cup at home and we did it."
England bravely played more than three-quarters of the match with only 14 players after winger Lydia Thompson was sent off for a head clash with Portia Woodman which also forced Woodman, the leading try-scorer in the tournament with seven, to leave the field.
Cokayne touched down twice during a frenetic first half in which seven tries were scored and after which England led 26-19. England scored three tries from rolling mauls, bringing to 14 their tally of tries at the tournament from that method.
New Zealand surprised England by also scoring tries to hooker Georgia Ponsonby and prop Amy Rule from driven mauls while still expressing itself with its back play.
The Black Ferns wrested the lead from England for first time with two tries in the first nine minutes of the second half which put it ahead 29-26. The first was a magnificent backline try, finished by center Stacey Fluhler and the second came from New Zealand’s surprisingly strong set piece.
Cokayne’s hat-trick try, again from a lineout drive, after New Zealand yielded a penalty from a collapsed scrum in front of its posts allowed England to regain the lead at 31-29 in the 54th minute.
New Zealand again rallied and Leti-I’iga scored after Fluhler won the race to a kick behind the England line and brilliantly held the ball up for the winger.
England was shattered by the result which upended its hope of turning its domination of women’s rugby over almost three years into a world title. It fielded nine players which lost to New Zealand in the last World Cup final in 2017, including captain Sarah Hunter.
“Sport can be cruel at times and I’m just so proud of the way this team has shown up, not just tonight but for the last three years,” Hunter said. “Hopefully one result doesn’t define the team, the individuals, the people they’ve become and the journey we’ve been on.
“Tonight was a great showcase for women’s rugby and credit to New Zealand. You can’t take it away from them.”
New Zealand played with great spirit against an England team which unquestionably is the greatest women’s team in history. England scored tries through fullback Ellie Kildunne and Cokayne to lead 14-0 after 14 minutes but New Zealand didn’t lose its shape or purpose.
Ponsonby’s try which immediately followed Thompson’s red card cut the lead to seven points. England went ahead again with Marlie Packer’s try from a rolling maul in the 21st minute but New Zealand replied with a try to Leti-I’iga.
Cokayne made the lead 26-14 after 32 minutes but New Zealand rallied again with Rule’s try immediately before halftime.
New Zealand started the second half superbly with a long-distance try to Fluhler who worked an inter-passing move with fullback Renee Holmes. When Krystal Murray scored, England found itself behind for the first time.
New Zealand co-captain Kennedy Simon was shown a yellow card for a high tackle in the 65th minute and Cokayne gave England the lead again. But New Zealand was not to be denied and reclaimed the lead, then held on under pressure for its sixth world title.
France claimed the bronze medal, beating Canada 36-0 in the playoff for third place.
After losing by a point to New Zealand — 25-24 — in a heart-breaking semifinal, France came out strongly and led 22-0 at halftime. The win extended France’s advantage to 9-7 in matches between the teams.
Marine Menager scored a try in each half and Manae Fall, Pauline Bourdon and Anaelle Deshaye also scored tries in an emphatic win for a France team seen at the start of the tournament as England’s likely opponent in the final.
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