The Red Roses saw Lydia Thompson sent off early for a head-on-head tackle on Portia Woodman after a furious start to an enthralling showpiece on Saturday played in front of a sold-out 43,579-strong crowd at Eden Park - a record attendance for women’s rugby - that involved five tries in a frenzied opening 24 minutes.
England still led 26-19 at half-time despite their numerical disadvantage, with Harlequins hooker Amy Cokayne’s hat-trick try from a driving maul later restoring their lead after the formidable Black Ferns had gone ahead through Stacey Fluhler and Krystal Murray scores.
A yellow card for New Zealand replacement flanker Kennedy Simon for a hit on Abby Dow evened up the numbers for a truly nailbiting final 15 minutes, but Simon Middleton’s side could not hold on as wing Ayesha Leti-l’iga crossed in style after a fine kick and Fluhler offload for the decisive score of the night.
England pressed until the very end with two five-metre lineouts in the final seconds instead of potentially kicking three points from range to tie the score, but could not breach the home defence again as defending champions New Zealand triumphed 34-31 to win their sixth title on home soil.
It was the Red Roses’ first Test defeat since July 2019, ending an incredible run of 30 consecutive victories. It is the fourth time in the last five tournaments that the 2014 champions have been bested by New Zealand at the final hurdle, also losing in Ireland five years ago.
New Zealand also beat England in the World Cup final in 2002, 2006 and 2010.
“I’m gutted,” said England captain Sarah Hunter. “So proud of the team, we came out fighting. We had our backs against the wall for 60 minutes but we never gave up. One result doesn’t define the squad that we are, the people we are. Hopefully we have inspired the next generation back home and given them something to be proud of.
“Sport is cruel. Credit to New Zealand, they found a way and they go home as deserved champions. We left no stone unturned, we left everything on the pitch. We are hurting.”
Black Ferns counterpart Ruahei Demant told ITV: “Shucks, I can’t put it into words. All I can say is I’m so proud of our team.
“It’s been very challenging, last year we got pumped on the northern tour and we have turned ourselves around. We sacrificed so much to win a World Cup at home and we did it.
“We hope we have inspired the next generation. That was an 80-minute slog. England came in as favourites so massive congratulations to them, they are an awesome team.”