Finals can often be sluggish affairs, stifled by the weight of the occasion and the all-encompassing pressure that accompanies them.
But sometimes, the occasion can elevate the final into a historic match, as was the case at the women’s rugby World Cup as New Zealand defeated England 34-31 in Auckland to become the first ever host nation to win the tournament.
It had everything: countless tries, a red card, a brilliant comeback, a hat-trick, and a world-record crowd for a women’s rugby game packed into Eden Park.
“I can’t even put it into words. All I can say is thank you and I am so proud of our team,” New Zealand’s captain Ruahei Demant said afterwards, according to The Guardian.
“It has been so overwhelming. We aren’t used to so many fans. We hope we have made our country proud. We hope we have inspired the next generation.”
Responding to the war cry of New Zealand’s haka before the game, England stormed to a 14-0 lead within as many minutes, thanks to tries from Ellie Kildunne and Amy Cokayne.
But the match turned on its head just three minutes later when England winger Lydia Thompson received a red card for a head-on-head collision with New Zealand’s Portia Woodman.
Now a player down, the Red Roses conceded a try from the resulting penalty as New Zealand drove over from the lineout with Georgia Ponsoby touching down.
The free-scoring start to the match continued with tries from Ayesha Leti-I’iga and Amy Rule for New Zealand countered by Cokayne’s second for England, leaving the score 26-19 in England’s favor at halftime.
As the defenses tired in the second half, gaps began to open up and a brilliant, flowing try from Stacey Fluhler combined with a score from Krystal Murray with her first touch of the ball gave the Black Ferns the lead for the first time on 50 minutes.
Five minutes later, Cokayne completed her hattrick and set up a grandstand finale with the scoreline poised at 29-31 to England.
But New Zealand regained the lead with just nine minutes left to play as Fluhler gathered a chip through and offloaded to Leti-I’iga to put her team three points ahead.
As the clock turned red, England had one last chance to close the three-point deficit but its lineout, so impressive all tournament, malfunctioned at the worst possible moment just five meters from the New Zealand tryline, conceding possession and the match.
It marked the Red Roses’ second consecutive loss to New Zealand in a World Cup final, and they were left to console each other on the pitch while Eden Park partied all around them.
“I thought the girls left everything out there. Sixty minutes with our backs to the wall, to keep fighting and to be in with a shot to win it right at the end,” England captain Sarah Hunter said afterwards, according to Reuters.
“You could not have asked for more from the girls, it’s a very special group and we can be immensely proud of what we’ve done for the women’s game.
“It will hurt, we don’t want to be losing World Cup finals especially in the manner that we’ve done, but I’m so, so proud of what we’ve done.”