England’s worst nightmare became grim reality as they crashed out of the World Cup with a whimper after a 33-13 rout by Australia condemned them to becoming the first host nation to fail to reach the knockout phase.
Trailing 20-3 early in the second half, Stuart Lancaster’s men clawed their way back into contention at Twickenham through sheer desperation, the boot of Owen Farrell and a well-worked try for Anthony Watson.
The deficit read a mere seven points as the final quarter began, but just as the fightback was reaching a critical juncture, an all-too familiar loss of composure proved their undoing.
The finger of guilt pointed at Farrell for his dangerous tackle on Matt Giteau, a yellow card from Romain Poite ended his night and Bernard Foley landed the penalty that swept Australia clear.
In the same move, Sam Burgess could have been sin-binned for a high challenge on Michael Hooper.
When the magnificent Foley landed his fourth penalty, England’s World Cup was consigned to oblivion after a mere 16 days, although there was still time for a late try from Giteau to complete a record-winning margin for Australia at Twickenham.
The fall-out will be vicious with the future of Lancaster and his coaching lieutenants now in grave doubt, while the blood-letting could also account for Rugby Football Union chief executive Ian Ritchie.
But England can only look inwards for blame, knowing they let a winning position slip against Wales before being outclassed by the Wallabies in the toughest pool in World Cup history.
Foley was regarded as one of the most ordinary fly-halves produced by Australia, but that view dissolved in the first half as he helped himself to two tries, the second a magical score worthy of repeat viewing that saw Will Genia and Kurtley Beale play inspired supporting roles. Foley finished with 28 points.
Australia led 17-3 before the break, showing wit and artistry that was beyond England, whose worst fears at the breakdown were realised as Michael Hooper and David Pocock plundered turnover after turnover.
No team had battled back from a 14-point deficit in World Cup history and the half-time arrival of George Ford as an injury replacement for Jonny May offered hope - but within five minutes that had vanished.
Lancaster’s call for an explosive start fell on deaf ears as Ben Youngs inexcusably kicked good attacking ball out of play and Mike Brown carried a Bernard Foley clearance into touch.
Only a robust tackle by Brown on Israel Folau stopped Australia scoring in the left corner and the full-back would have touched down himself had he not knocked on a crossfield bomb by Foley.
Foley and Farrell exchanged penalties, before quick ball created an opening that the weaving Foley turned into a try.
England could only dream of the Wallabies’ patience and ingenuity as on three occasions they launched a promising attack, only to lose direction before turning over the ball around the 22-metre line.
While each England advance into enemy territory produced nothing, Australia were operating at their ruthless best as Genia and Foley conjured a special try when nothing seemed on.
Genia switched the point of attack to Foley, who interchanged with Beale before charging over to finish a score of dazzling ingenuity that was in part created by Beale’s perfect line.
Foley landed his second penalty early in the second half, provoking a sense of urgency in the hosts that resulted in a spell of sustained pressure which ended when Watson squeezed between two gold shirts after profiting from smart hands by Joe Launchbury.
Suddenly there was hope, England scrambling and hacking like madmen to win a penalty that Farrell sent between the uprights.
But once again they let the moment slip, Farrell giving Foley sight of goal before Giteau’s converted try completed the rout.