Kevin Brown insists justice was done as England clung on for a heart-stopping 20-18 victory over Tonga that secured a first World Cup final appearance for 22 years.
England were coasting at 20-0 but suddenly found themselves battling a red tidal wave as the Pacific Islanders, roared on by the vast majority of the capacity 30,000 crowd at Auckland’s Mount Smart Stadium, ran in three converted tries in the last seven minutes.
It might have been four had Andrew Fifita been able to hang onto the ball as he charged for the line with just seconds left of the gripping semi-final but it came loose in Elliott Whitehead’s tackle and England breathed a huge sigh of relief.
Tonga coach Kristian Woolf said he was baffled by referee Matt Cecchin’s failure to refer the final call to video referee Ben Thaler after Fifita regathered the ball to touch down and an on-line petition calling for an explanation attracted 30,000 signatures while Tongan fans continued to protest on Sunday during the annual Santa parade through the city centre.
However, former Huddersfield Gants star Brown had a clear view of the incident.
“I think it was a clear-cut drop but obviously if that had been us, we’d have been wanting the same,” he said. “Any chance you can get of having another tackle or a video referral, you’re going to call for that.
“But I think it was a fair result. We were much the better side for the majority of the game.”
The 33-year-old Warrington stand-off says the memory of Saturday’s epic match will live with him forever.
“The ending to that game and the energy they got from the crowd was like nothing I’ve been involved in,” he said. “I’ve played nearly 400 games and been involved in some great atmospheres but nothing has come close to that.
“It was 20-0 after 70 minutes and we were coasting. Then they just came at us like a massive wave of energy.
“The noise was unbelievable when they scored the last try that made it a two-point game. I think we did exceptionally well to hold on because they threw everything at us.
“You saw at the end there were people throwing their bodies in. It was such a sigh of relief when I saw Fifita drop the ball and the referee blew the whistle. There were bodies falling on the floor.”
Tries from prolific winger Jermaine McGillvary, Gareth Widdop and John Bateman looked to have made it a routine victory but in the end England were grateful for the precision kicking of Widdop, who added all three conversions and kicked a crucial penalty that proved the difference.
The in-form McGillvary showed his danger early on by collecting Luke Gale’s kick to the corner and, although his final pass was intercepted by Michael Jennings, it gave England the early momentum.
A classic break from Widdop, courtesy of an offload from the impressive James Graham then set up the position for McGillvary to race in for the game’s opening try, with Brown and Widdop providing the telling passes straight from a scrum.
It was McGillvary’s seventh try of the tournament, took his tally for his country to 12 in just 11 appearances and enhanced his burgeoning reputation as a world-class player.
Widdop’s conversion went in off an upright and England’s luck was also in moments later when Tonga captain Sika Manu thought he had finished off a glorious move from deep inside his own half only for referee Matt Cecchin to rule Jennings had made the final pass from off the ground.
Cecchin also thought Widdop had been tackled when he planted the ball over the line in a second effort after taking Whitehead’s pass 10 metres out but video referee Thaler disagreed and awarded England their second try after 15 minutes.
Widdop’s second goal made it 12-0 but England lived dangerously up to half-time, with Tonga’s dangerous offloading game causing them all sorts of problems and they were indebted to Widdop’s last-ditch tackle on winger Daniel Tupou to keep their advantage intact..
England knew it was their day when Tonga bombed a glorious chance three minutes into the second half, Tupou dropping Will Hopoate’s pass with the line at his mercy, and Widdop took the opportunity to put his side three scores in front when he kicked a 50th-minute penalty.
Widdop then supplied the final pass for Bateman to score England’s third try after 66 minutes which looked to have put the seal on an impressive victory.
But the few hundred England fans were left biting their nails after Tevita Pangai’s 74th-minute try sparked the late comeback, which continued when hooker Siliva Havili skipped over from dummy half and Jason Taumalolo carved out a try for Tui Lolohea, who added all three conversions.
Tonga: Hopoate, Tupou, Jennings, Hurrell, Fusitu’a, Lolohea, Hingano, Fifita, Havili, Taukeiaho, Ma’u, Manu, Taumalolo. Substitutes: Katoa, Terepo, Pangai Jnr, Murdoch-Masila.
England: Widdop, McGillvary, Watkins, Bateman, Hall, Brown, Gale, Hill, Hodgson, Graham, S. Burgess, Whitehead, O’Loughlin. Substitutes: Walmsley, T. Burgess, Currie, Roby.