Ayesha Leti-l’iga scored a try nine minutes from time to give New Zealand a 34-31 victory over England in a thriller of a World Cup final on Saturday as the Black Ferns claimed a sixth world title at a packed Eden Park.
England played for more than three quarters of the match with 14 women after Lydia Thompson was sent off for a reckless tackle but still looked on course for a 31st successive victory with a two-point lead going into the last 10 minutes.
Centre Stacey Fluhler chased a chip through, however, and brilliantly offloaded in the tackle to winger Leti-l’iga, who touched down for her second try to give New Zealand a lead they would not relinquish.
New Zealand’s victory brought an end to three years of dominance of women’s rugby by England as well as their record winning streak, which included two thrashings of the Black Ferns at the end of last year
“I’m so proud of our team,” said New Zealand co-captain and player of the match Ruahei Demant. “Last year we went on the northern tour and we got pumped. We sacrificed so much to get the one chance to win a World Cup at home and we did it.
“We hope we have made our country proud and inspired the next generation of Black Ferns.”
A hat-trick from hooker Amy Cokayne off the rolling maul and tries from flanker Marlie Packer and fullback Ellie Kildunne had kept England ahead for all but 15 of the 80 minutes.
“Sport can be cruel at times,” said England captain Sarah Hunter. “I’m just so proud of the way this team have shown up not just tonight but over the last three years. I hope that one result doesn’t define the team.
“We gave everything tonight and unfortunately it wasn’t enough to take the trophy home.”
New Zealand have been transformed under Wayne Smith this year but the defending champions knew England would present the biggest test of their new high-tempo game.
“I don’t think many people gave us a chance today,” said Smith, the mastermind behind two World Cup wins with the All Blacks.
“This will go down as one of the great experiences of my life. I love these women, I love what they’ve done to get here.”
England, overwhelming favourites to claim a third title, started at a canter and were two tries to the good before Thompson was dismissed for clattering into Portia Woodman head high.
“She’s devastated, she’s as devastated for what happened to Portia as what happened to her,” England coach Simon Middleton said.
“There’s no malice in it, it’s just a clash of heads. There’s no fingers to be pointed.”
Woodman was taken off the pitch on a motorised stretcher but New Zealand immediately cut the deficit with a try from hooker Georgia Ponsonby.
The English fired up their well-oiled machine of a rolling maul with every opportunity and flanker Packer was the next to benefit to extend their lead and give the Red Roses a 12th try of the tournament from the manoeuvre.
Leti-l’iga had replaced Woodman and she finished brilliantly after 25 minutes to get New Zealand back within five points but Cokayne was soon touching down again off another catch-and-drive to put England ahead at 26-14.
New Zealand prop Amy Rule scored after yet another maul to cut the lead to 26-19 at the break and the Black Ferns made it a two-point game straight from the second-half kickoff with a stunning try from Fluhler.
The hosts went ahead for the first time at 29-26 in the 49th minute when replacement prop Krystal Murray crashed over from a blindside move with her first touch of the ball after a 50-22 from scrumhalf Kendra Cocksedge.
England went back to the driving maul to give Cokayne her hat-trick and grab back the lead five minutes later, however, and looked in a good place when New Zealand co-captain Kennedy Simon was sent to the sin bin in the 65th minute.
The Red Roses had their chances after Leti-l’iga’s second try but put their trust in the lineout drive rather than level the scores with a penalty – a trust that was betrayed when the final lineout went awry.
“We had absolute faith in our process,” Hunter added. “There was never any doubt that we would find a way. Games come down to fine margins and unfortunately it didn’t work out.”