The Tongans had fought back from 20-0 down with three converted tries in the last seven minutes to set up a nail-biting finish and thought they had snatched a sensational victory when Fifita went on a charge for the line with just seconds left on the clock.
The ball came free in England second rower Elliott Whitehead’s tackle and, although Fifita claimed a try after regathering the ball, referee Matt Cecchin ruled a knock-on and promptly blew the final whistle.
England coach Wayne Bennett insisted it was not a try and claimed the referee ought to have given England a penalty moments earlier for a ball strip on winger Jermaine McGillvary.
“The ref allowed play on and exactly the same thing happened to Fifita,” Bennett said. “He got the ball stripped off him one on one. In both cases he should have given a penalty but he did neither. It comes under the category of a loose carry.”
Tonga coach Kristian Woolf questioned the decision not to refer the call to video referee Ben Thaler and said he would be bringing up the incident with tournament officials.
“I don’t know if it’s a try or not because I haven’t seen it again but I would have thought under those circumstances, when the game is on the line, you have a look at it, especially when we looked at other tries 10 or 12 times,” Woolf said.
“That really surprises me. I just can’t get my head around that.
“We’ve got to ask the question. It doesn’t matter now because the game is done but you’ve got to ask the question for your own piece of mind.”
England defied a sea of red created by a passionate following of more than 25,000 Tongan fans to produce their best rugby of the tournament, with Gareth Widdop and Jermaine McGillvary scoring first-half tries and John Bateman adding a third to put his side into a commanding 20-0 lead.
But England were left hanging on grimly when Tonga ran in tries through Tevita Pangai, Siliva Havill and Tuimoala Lolohea, with Siosiua Taukeiaho converting all three.
Bennett claimed he was never worried over the outcome, however, and was delighted with his side’s defence.
“I wasn’t nervous,” he said. “The time clock was on our side. It was a quality game of football. It was a sell-out crowd and the atmosphere was great. Both teams turned up and threw everything at each other. We had our hands full but we got the job done.
“They had some chances but we kept turning up in defence which was great. At the end of the day, our defence won the game for us. I’m really pleased with that.”
After being denied by a last-minute try from New Zealand in 2013, England can now look forward to their first final since 1995 but, asked if they were playing well enough to beat Australia in Brisbane next Saturday, Bennett said: “Probably not, but we’ll be there next week, we’ll still go to the game.”
England will almost certainly go into the final without hooker Josh Hodgson, who went off with a knee injury after 23 minutes.
“I’m not sure what’s going on there,” Bennett said. “I don’t think he’ll be right to play next week. You don’t normally limp off like that and play next week.”
Bennett says captain Sean O’Loughlin is also in some doubt after picking up a quad strain.