A packed Mount Smart Stadium in Auckland at absolute fever pitch was the venue for the second semi-final as England took on Tonga for the honour of taking on Australia in next weeks final.
Wayne Bennett was able to name an unchanged seventeen after Kevin Brown was declared fit and the Warrington half was teamed up with Luke Gale at scrum half and Gareth Widdop at full back. The much fancied Tonga made just one change from the side who were pushed all the way by Lebanon last week with prop Sio Taukeiaho replacing Ofahengaue.
The hopes of an expectant nation rested on seventeen men in white.
The opening exchanges were a bit scruffy from both sides with neither able to make much of an attacking impact as defences dominated.
On eleven, James Graham released Gareth Widdop for sixty metre break downfield. England forced a scrum inside then Tongan twenty and from the back of it they moved the ball wide right for Jermaine McGillvary to dive over in the right corner on the overlap. Widdop added the conversion courtesy of the far upright to settle England nerves with a 6-0 lead.
A sensational flowing Tongan passing move on fourteen should have resulted in a try but a pass after the tackle on the try line resulted in an England penalty.
On sixteen an Elliott Whitehead offload went into the hands of Widdop who crawled to the line to ground. Referee Cecchin sent the decision to the video referee as a NO TRY for a double-movement, but was overruled and England had a 10-0 lead which was further extended by the Widdop conversion.
Josh Hodgson went off with knee injury on twenty-three and was replaced by James Roby as Tonga started establishing foothold in the England half. After repelling the Tonga onslaught England managed to get some quality time in their opponents half. The second twenty of the game was a much more even encounter and with neither side managing a further score it was 12-0 at the interval.
Three minutes into the second half, Daniel Tupou dropped the ball off a Will Hopoate pass with the try line begging and the whole of England breathed a sigh of relief.
When England were given a penalty for a second effort thirty metres from the Tonga line, Widdop kicked the two to extend the lead to 14-0.
On sixty-six John Bateman took a Widdop pass to spin off the Tongan tackler and drop over the line to edge England into the World Cup Final. Widdop added the goal for a 20-0 lead.
On seventy-two Tonga got what looks like a consolation try when Tevita Pangai Junior burrowed under a pile of England tacklers to ground on the line. Sio Taukeiaho added the goal for 20-6. But three minutes later and Silvia Havili went from acting half-back to dive over after a fast play the ball and Taukeiaho again kicked the goal to reduce the arrears to 20-12 the impossible was back on the cards.
On seventy-seven Tuimaoala Lolohea made it three tries in five minutes when he took a pass to go through an exhausted England defence to score under the sticks. Taukeiaho again added the conversion to set up the most nail biting of last two minutes.
Tonga gave it everything in those last two minutes while desperate last ditch defence managed to keep them out and England had a two point win.
It was another victory for England but they came close to snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. It was a superb game and a great finish as England progress to the ultimate prize, the World Cup final. A fantastic defensive effort for over seventy minutes was ruined by three big lapses in the closing minutes.
All credit to Tonga who never gave up, but England will now know that they will have to be even better next week to have a chance of shocking the Aussies.
This will be the third World Cup Final meeting between England and Australia, the first since Australia won by 16-8 in 1995, and while the Kangaroos will be favourites few people would entirely rule out a Wayne Bennett coached side.
England: Widdop (T, 4G), McGillvary (T), Watkins, Bateman (T), Hall, Brown, Gale, Hill, Hodgson, Graham, S. Burgess, Whitehead, O'Loughlin. Subs: Walmsley, Currie, T. Burgess, Roby.
Tonga: Hopoate, Tupou, Jennings, Hurrell, Fusitu’a, Lolohea (T), Hingano, Fifita, Havili (T), Taukeiaho (3G), Ma’u, Manu, Taumalolo. Subs: Katoa, Terepo , Murdoch-Masila, Pangai Jnr (T).
Referee: Matt Cecchin.