Rugby World Cup: Black Ferns defend world crown in pulsating final against England

The Black Ferns have surged home to beat shorthanded England and earn their second straight Rugby World Cup title - and sixth ever - winning the final 34-31 in front of a soldout Eden Park.

Trailing by two points with nine minutes to play, midfielder Stacey Fluhler produced some individual magic, pouncing on a grubber and providing an incredible offload to winger Aeyesha Leti-I'iga for the winning try in a scintillating match that delivered on the occasion.

Ranked No.1 and riding a 30-game winning streak, the English had dominated the forward exchanges through the contest and had one last chance to steal victory with a series of attacking lineouts in the final seconds.

But when they needed it most, New Zealand stole a crucial lineout throw after the final siren and cleared to touch, as the celebrations began. 

Ellie Kildunne scores a try for England
Ellie Kildunne scores a try for England. Photo credit: Getty Images

"I can't even put it into words," gasped captain Ruahei Demant. "I'm so proud of our team.

"It's been really challenging. Probably most people here don't even know that last year we went  on a northern tour and got pumped.

"The way that the players have turned themselves around, there's a lot that's unseen and there's so many players that are a part of this team that aren't even here to get us to this stage.

"We've sacrificed so much to get this one chance of a lifetime to win a World Cup at home and we did it!"

At the climax of a tournament that has catapulted women's rugby to a new level, the match lived up to its billing and more from the start, with momentum swinging one way, then the other, as contrasting styles clashed.

England only needed three minutes to stamp their authority on proceedings, attacking from a lineout to put fullback Ellie Kildunne over for the opening try.

Their advantage doubled, when the vaunted Roses lineout maul hit top gear to propel hooker Amy Cokayne across for the first of her three tries and New Zealand looked in deep trouble already.

They stayed true to coach Wayne Smith's vision of expansive rugby and slowly the Ferns found their groove. An early point came, when flying winger Portia Woodman was felled by a head-on-head tackle that saw counterpart Lydia Thompson red-carded out of the game and England reduced to 14 players for the final 62 minutes.

From the penalty, Demant kicked to the corner and the NZ women showed their lineout maul was just as potent, with hooker Georgia Ponsonby the beneficiary. 

Even shorthanded, the English were far from done, with flanker Marlie Packer scoring from another lineout maul, but the Black Ferns answered, when Leti-I'iga - who replaced Woodman - took advantage of the numbers advantage for her first try.

Cokayne had a try double, but as halftime arrived, the Ferns lineout struck again, with prop Amy Rule rumbling over to close within 26-19 at the break.  

New Zealand struck from the second-half kickoff, with Fluhler breaking over halfway, finding fullback Renee Holmes in support and then looming wide for a return pass to score. Holmes had a chance to level the contest, but her conversion went astray.

They took the lead moments later, when retiring halfback Kendra Cocksedge rolled a 50-22 kick into touch for an attacking lineout. Lock Maia Roos secured the throw, the forwards edge towards the line and replacement prop Krystal Murray plunged over in the corner.

Black Ferns celebrate a try against England
Black Ferns celebrate a try against England. Photo credit: Getty Images

Cokayne secured her hattrick to snatch the lead back for England and the two adversaries wrestled for control, until New Zealand caught a vital break with 10 minutes remaining.

The Roses won a lineout in their own half and first-five Zoe Harrison cleared to touch on the full, with referee Holle Davidson initially ruling Demant had made contact with the ball and awarding another England lineout in the NZ half.

TV replays showed Demant had missed the ball, the call was reversed and from the ensuing lineout, the Ferns constructed the winning try, with second-five Theresa Fitzpatrick kicking to the corner, Fluhler chasing to regather and Leti-I'iga proving the unlikely hero.

England have bravely hung on for all but the final seconds, watching their winning run end in the most dramatic of fashions.

"The sport can be cruel at times and I'm just so proud of how this England team has shown up, not just tonight, but for the last three years," said captain Sarah Hunter. "Hopefully, one result doesn't define the team, the individuals, the people that they become and the journey we've been on.

"Tonight, we showcased women's rugby. Credit to New Zealand... you can't take it from them.

"We gave everything tonight, but unfortunately, it wasn't enough to take that trophy."

NZ 34 (Ponsonby, Rule, Fluhler, Murray & Leti-I'iga 2 tries; Holmes 2 conversions) England 31 (Kildunne, Packer & Cokayne 3 tries; Scarratt 3 conversions)