AUCKLAND, New Zealand -- Five years on from another extraordinary World Cup loss and the end of an incredible 30-match win streak, England coach Simon Middleton and captain Sarah Hunter were left to imagine what might have been, after they were stunned by the Black Ferns 34-31 on Saturday night [NZT].
Dominating the opening 15-minutes of play and looking unstoppable, a red card to wing Lydia Thompson in the 17th minute proved to be the deciding factor in a highly entertaining match that included 11 tries, a red and a yellow card.
Desperately attempting to stop a Portia Woodman dart down the left sideline early in the match, Thompson flew into the tackle and ultimately clashed heads with the Black Ferns' attacking weapon. It would end both their nights with Woodman carted off the field on a medicab and Thompson shown red for the incident.
According to Black Ferns coach Wayne Smith, Woodman was in high spirits following the win but was badly dazed and couldn't remember much of the match. Middleton meanwhile said Thompson was left crushed after her side failed to overcome the one-player deficit.
"She's pretty upset as you can imagine," Middleton said. "But you know Lydia is one of the best pros and one of the most beautiful people you will ever meet.
"So, she's devastated, and she's devastated for what happened to Portia as well, because they've had some unbelievable clashes between them over the last five, six, 10-years and that was taken away from the game, and neither one of them would have wanted that.
"It's just unfortunate, there's no malice in it, it's a clash of heads and it took possibly two of the best players in the world out of the game. But yeah, she's pretty devastated about it, but she'll be alright we'll get around her tonight like we'll get around all the other players who are pointing the finger at themselves.
"There's no fingers to be pointed at anybody; we came together, stand together, fall together. We're definitely going to celebrate together."
Holding onto a narrow two-point advantage in the later stages of the match, another clash of heads would come into play, this time between Black Ferns co-captain Kennedy Simon and Red Roses wing Abby Dow. In a similar looking incident to earlier in the match, Simon curiously would only receive a yellow card for her hit with Dow taken from the field moments later for an HIA.
Asked his opinion on the yellow card decision, Middleton simply responded: "No comment really on that."
Flying out to an impressive 14-0 lead after just 15-minutes, through a flourishing backline move and their much-vaunted rolling maul, the Red Roses looked like they would have it easy against the Black Ferns. But after disaster struck, they faced an uphill battle and with seconds left on the clock came close to pipping New Zealand.
With a lineout five metres out from the Black Ferns' line, England looked certain to steal the victory with another driving maul. Instead, Black Ferns reserve Joanah Ngan-Woo would produce the lineout steal of her life, rising alongside the Red Roses to flick the ball down to prop Kyrstal Murray with New Zealand receiving the short arm penalty and then the match.
Crestfallen and forced to face the media minutes after the match, Hunter struggled to put the moment into words as she found herself in the same position five years on from her 2017 heartbreaking defeat to the same side.
"We said before the tournament that whatever we do, we can be proud of the team and the squad," Hunter said.
"One game doesn't define you. To hold out like that for 60-odd minutes, you could not have asked for more.
"We have a special group and can be immensely proud of what we've done."
In his last match as Black Ferns coach, and likely headed towards retirement, Smith said he's never been more proud of any team he'd coached after their come-from-behind win in front of a record crowd at Eden Park.
One of the most decorated coaches, Smith has seen success in the men's game with the All Blacks, Chiefs and Crusaders, but the Black Ferns World Cup victory in front of a home crowd may go down as his greatest achievement.
"I said to the team this morning that I loved them and was proud of them. I've never been more proud of a team," Smith said.
"We just wanted to go out and play and be true to our DNA in what we were trying to do.
"I'm not going to stay involved, but I'm going to follow these women for the rest of their careers."
Celebrating well into the night, Black Ferns players were spotted around Auckland, some in their playing kit, as they soaked up the victory. A sixth World Cup title, the win will be remembered for years to come.