England captain Sarah Hunter saluted a “special group” of Red Roses after the heartbreak of World Cup final defeat against New Zealand.
England went down 34-31, having played more than an hour with 14 on the field after Lydia Thompson was sent off in the 18th minute.
Despite facing the tournament hosts in front of a sold-out Eden Park a player down, Hunter was convinced her side, who led for much of the match, would find a way to come out on top.
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She said: “I had absolute belief that they would do it. There was never any doubt that we wouldn’t find a way to win.
“There was no panic, we just had absolute faith in what we were doing. Unfortunately it didn’t work out our way.
“We’re as one. We win together and lose together. There is no blame culture in this team. We’re all accountable for whether we win or lose.
“We can be proud of the squad we have become. The girls left everything out on the field. Our backs against the wall for 60 minutes of the game. To be in with a shot of winning right at the end…
“This is a very special group and we can be immensely proud of what we have done as a team over these last eight weeks.
“One game doesn’t define you.”
A frantic first half saw seven tries and England led 26-19 at the break.
Second-half tries from Stacey Fluhler and Krystal Murray fired the Black Ferns ahead and, although Amy Cokayne’s hat-trick try edged England back in front, Ayesha Leti-I’iga finished off a fine move late in the game for what proved to be the match-winning try.
England coach Simon Middleton said: “It was a great game. Fitting of a World Cup final. Great occasion and a final to match.”
England had an opportunity from the lineout at the death and he said: “I thought, ‘someone is going to have a great 30 seconds here’ but it didn’t happen. Sometimes things are written in the stars and I think it has been for the Black Ferns in this tournament.”
On Thompson’s 18th-minute red card for a high tackle on Portia Woodman, Middleton said: “She is pretty upset. She is devastated. It is just an unfortunate clash of heads. There was no malice in it whatsoever. It took two of the best players in the world out of the game.
“We looked at how we could adapt in attack and defence. We adapted as we went along. The game was challenging enough as it was and then there were a few more things thrown in there. But I could not be more proud of the players.”
Middleton was full of praise for his opposite number Wayne Smith.
He said: “As soon as Wayne was put in charge he enhanced their chances of winning the World Cup. He is one of the best coaches ever.
“The Black Ferns deserve the trophy. They have ridden every storm and come out the other side of it. We are privileged to have been in that game tonight giving everything we could.”
Middleton refused to answer questions about his plans going forward with a home tournament coming in 2025, adding: “We are all going to get together tonight and celebrate a brilliant team.”
Winning coach Smith said: “I have never been more proud of a team. We just wanted to go out and play and be true to our DNA.
“I am not going to stay involved but I will be following these women for the rest of their careers. It is not just the 23 today, we have some global superstars coming through.
“I just think the future’s great. I am going to be following them but from a different position.”
Black Ferns captain Ruahei Demant said: “We never felt scoreboard pressure even though we were down.”
Demant also praised the home support, adding: “None of us really expected this. To walk out of the tunnel and you can’t even think because the crowd is so loud. I never thought we would get that. Part of our plan was to inspire the nation and I think we have done that.”
England men’s head coach Eddie Jones sent a consoling message to the Red Roses after their valiant efforts.
Jones said: “On behalf of the England men’s team we’d like to send our commiserations and congratulations to Simon, Sarah and all of the Red Roses players and staff.
“We know how tough this moment is and it will be hard to feel the positives in the immediacy but they should be very proud of what they’ve achieved on the pitch and off it.
“They’ve played excellent rugby, had an unbelievable unbeaten run and are a really tight group.
“Back here in England we can feel the impact that they have made across the game; how many people are talking about them and enjoying watching them and they will inspire even more girls and boys to play rugby.
“They are excellent ambassadors for our great game and we look forward to seeing them go onwards from here, towards a home Rugby World Cup in England in 2025.”