England were yesterday coming to terms with the fall-out from their stunning World Cup victory over New Zealand after Willi Heinz was ruled out of the final while the fitness of a number of players is being monitored closely.
Ben Spencer is set to make his tournament debut in Saturday’s global showpiece after Heinz suffered a hamstring injury against the All Blacks.
Heinz came on in the 63rd minute and although the Gloucester half-back struggled on until the end, the RFU has confirmed he will play no further part in the World Cup.
Spencer has won three caps as a replacement, the most recent of which came in this year’s Six Nations, and he will also deputise for first-choice scrum-half Ben Youngs at International Stadium Yokohama.
It is understood that Heinz – who is part of the squad’s three-strong social committee alongside Elliot Daly and Jamie George – will stay at England’s training base in Tokyo even though a solid tournament and build-up is over for the World Cup bolter.
Of potentially greater concern are the knocks sustained by captain Owen Farrell, wings Jonny May and Anthony Watson and prop Kyle Sinckler – all key personnel.
Farrell was somehow able to run off a dead leg sustained in a breathtaking maiden World Cup triumph over the All Blacks that has elevated the winners to the summit of the global rankings.
It is the first time since June 2014 that England have reached such lofty heights and it has come at New Zealand’s expense.
Farrell completed the match, although he gave the kicking duties to George Ford, but the extent of his hobbling in the first half set alarm bells ringing.
May could only last 45 minutes, however, before he succumbed to the same injury and was replaced by Henry Slade, who slotted in at full-back with Daly moving to the left wing.
The Leicester star entered the game having recovered from a hamstring complaint and England will be desperate to have his speed, work-rate and finishing available for the final.
On the other wing, Watson was a constant threat and, with 81, made the most metres of any player on the pitch except All Blacks full-back Beauden Barrett.
But his superb shift was completed against the backdrop of receiving treatment for what appeared to be an upper body injury.
Sinckler, the aggressive tighthead prop, departed in the 47th minute with what appeared to be a calf issue that Eddie Jones will hope is not serious.
England’s bold decision to stare down the Haka with a V shape was followed up by a try from the outstanding Manu Tuilagi after just 97 seconds, but the blockbusting centre insists the greatest prize of all has yet to be claimed.
“This was a massive game for us but we’ve won nothing. It doesn’t change our mindset going into next week,” Tuilagi said. “We’re happy with the win. It was a tough game. We gave it everything we’ve got.
“The All Blacks are an unbelievable team. Against the All Blacks it’s never done until the final whistle.
“It doesn’t matter how many points you are ahead, you can never really take your foot off the gas.
“We knew that going into half-time our 10-point lead wasn’t enough, so we had to come out and play. Fair play to our big boys they fronted up and did all the hard work for us.
“This is beyond my dreams. It’s an unbelievable feeling. It was amazing to get through to the semis. Standing here now and we’re in the final. Thank God.”
New Zealand coach Steve Hansen revealed afterwards that the New Zealand and England coaching teams reflected on a remarkable contest over a few beers.
Despite the pain of defeat still being so raw, Hansen and his coaching team met with their England counterparts once hostilities had ceased.
“There was a lot of respect from both sides. Eddie was particularly mindful of how I was feeling and I was quite encouraging of what they have to do next,” said Hansen, who along with captain Kieran Read will step down from their posts once Friday’s bronze medal match against Wales is completed.
“The nice thing was that some of their guys came into our shed and our coaching group went down to theirs and shared a beer.
“The game has moved on a heck of a lot from its traditions, but it’s only a game. Sport can teach you a lot. It was nice to share a beer with them.
“It didn’t take us by surprise, we knew we were in for a hell of a battle. This England team hasn’t just snuck up and poked us in the face. They won 18 games in a row and there’s only one other team that’s done that in the history of the game (New Zealand) and that makes them a formidable side.”
“We played them at Twickenham last year and managed to win by a point. It was a titanic struggle.
“They were coming into this tournament over the last four years with a massive amount of pain themselves - the massive adversity of not even making the quarter-finals of their own tournament hurt them.
“They don’t play a sophisticated game. Win the ball, give it to a big bloke and run hard. Win the collision and get over the gain-line.
“That’s rugby in its simplistic form, but it’s beautiful as well. They use their big men to their full extent.
“When you win the collision, you go forward, and the game has never changed from the first time it was played until today.
“If you’re going forward, you will win the game. They won those collisions.
“They’ve been working and working their butts off, probably more than any other England team in history.
“We got what we expected and we just have to acknowledge that on the night, they did things a little better than we did.”
Hansen and captain Kieran Read will step down from their posts once Friday’s bronze medal match is completed.
“When you get knocked over, your character’s going to be questioned and you have a choice,” Hansen said.
“Do I stand up and wear my big man’s pants, or do I stay down and wear my little boy pants?
“We’re going to try to stand up and represent our country again with pride and dignity and execute as well as we possibly can and try to get a result.”