Middleton hails beaten England: ‘We couldn’t ask for a single thing more’

England’s head coach, Simon Middleton, says he will forever be proud of his team following their agonising last-gasp defeat to New Zealand in a magnificent Rugby World Cup final. The Red Roses played more than 60 minutes with just 14 players and blew a crucial late attacking lineout opportunity but Middleton said his side had given everything and helped to elevate the women’s game to another level.

Middleton believed his team were poised to claim victory in the final seconds but paid generous tribute to the hosts and their coach, Wayne Smith. “I feel hugely positive about what we’ve just witnessed,” he said. “I don’t think we could have asked for a single thing more from our players. We’ve just come unstuck against a side that had a bit more than us. Credit to the Black Ferns, they are worthy champions. If that World Cup doesn’t take the game forward, there is something wrong.”

The Black Ferns’ triumph owed much to a stolen injury-time lineout by Joanah Ngan-Woo, with England pushing for the winning score. “I thought someone was going to have a really good 30 seconds,” admitted Middleton. “I backed us to have it, but we didn’t. New Zealand were great, they went up and challenged. Sometimes things are written in the stars and I think it has been for the Black Ferns this tournament.

“It’s such fine margins, isn’t it? If Caroline Drouin knocks the penalty over for France last week the Black Ferns aren’t in the final. If we score with the last play we win the cup. But that’s not how it works. The Black Ferns deserve the trophy. They’ve ridden out the storm – and it’s been a hell of a storm in the last eight or nine months –and they’ve come out the other side of it. For rugby that’s a great thing. We were really privileged to be in that game, giving everything we could. What an occasion, what a crowd, what an atmosphere.”

The lock forward Abbie Ward also said she thought that England had made the correct call in opting for the late lineout rather than looking to kick an equalising penalty. “We used it to great effect throughout the game. We had four lineout tries in the game and we had to go to it. We had to back it. Maybe if we’d caught it, it would have been a different result. It’s something that will stick with us.”

The captain, Sarah Hunter, also acknowledged that the pain of defeat would not fade for a long time. “Sport can be cruel – but one game doesn’t define you. It hurts to lose a World Cup final and especially in that manner but I’m incredibly proud of what we’ve done as a team.”

Middleton also stressed there had been no malice in the collision with Portia Woodman that saw Lydia Thompson sent off after just 17 minutes. “She’s pretty upset, as you can imagine. But Lydia is one of the best pros and one of the most beautiful people you’ll ever meet. She’s devastated, as much for what happened to Portia as what happened to her.”

The England’s men’s coach, Eddie Jones, meanwhile added to the chorus of praise for the Red Roses. “Back here in England we can feel the impact they have made across the game; how many people are talking about them and enjoying watching them. They will inspire even more girls and boys to play rugby.” England are due to host the next World Cup tournament in 2025.

Back at Eden Park Smith said the experience matched anything else he had previously known in rugby. “That was the most phenomenal rugby moment of my life standing out there and hearing that crowd chanting the names of these girls. Something’s ignited this country around women’s rugby and we’ve got to make it count.”