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 today during the annual Santa parade through the city centre.
However, 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.”
England’s reward is a clash with holders Australia, who have conceded just 16 points in their five matches so far and blitzed Fiji 54-6 in their semi-final.
England head coach Wayne Bennett began the mind games ahead of Saturday’s final at Suncorp Stadium by admitting in the post-match press conference that his side were “probably not” playing well enough to beat the Kangaroos but Brown is expecting him to come up with a few answers.
“I’m not too sure how we beat them yet,” Brown said. “We’ve got the best coach in the world so he’ll have a few ideas.
“With the effort and endeavour, we’ve got to go up a couple of gears and, if we can do that, then we’ll be competitive.
“I know from playing so many games that when you’re competitive anything can happen. We’ll enjoy the week and give it everything we’ve got.”
Meanwhile, England women’s World Cup campaign came to an end with a crushing 52-4 defeat by New Zealand in today’s semi-finals in Sydney.
England conceded two tries in the first six minutes but hit back through Tara-Jane Stanley, who pounced on a kick from half-back Kirsty Moroney to score midway through the first half, and they trailed only 14-4 at the break.
However, the Ferns ran in seven tries after the half-time interval, including a hat-trick for winger Honey Hireme, to run away with the game and secure a place in Saturday’s final against holders Australia, who were 58-6 winners over Canada in the other semi-final.