Samoa completed one of the great sporting comebacks of all time to knock England out of the World Cup and earn a final showdown with Australia at Old Trafford next Saturday.
Four weeks after being humiliated 60-6 by England in the tournament opener in Newcastle, the Samoans turned the table in dramatic fashion with a golden point 27-26 semi-final victory at the Emirates Stadium.
Centre Stephen Crichton was the match winner, kicking a 40-metre drop goal in the fourth minute of extra time, to add to his two tries and three conversions.
England, so impressive on their run to the last four, saved their worst 40-minute performance for the semi-final but finally emerged from their slumbers to rally from 20-12 down to twice draw level in a breathless second half before being pipped at the death.
The game may have lacked the quality of the first semi-final between Australia and New Zealand but it made up for it with sheer excitement and drama as Samoa, making their first appearance in a World Cup semi-final, revelled in the role of underdogs.
They played the more attractive rugby while England looked strangely tentative from the start despite being given a helping hand by the boot of their opponents.
Full-back Joseph Suaalii and stand-off Anthony Milford both kicked out on the full to fritter away possession and skipper Junior Paulo was sin-binned for a tip-tackle on Tom Burgess after 12 minutes.
Samoa were already 4-0 up by then after centre Tim Lafai slipped the tackle of his Salford team-mate Kallum Watkins to score the opening try and they were able to defend their line while down to 12 men.
They suffered a blow when hooker Fa’amanu Brown, drafted into the side in place of an unavailable Danny Levi, was knocked out in a clash of heads with team-mate Oregon Kaufusi and they had a let-off when England captain Sam Tomkins got Watkins through a gap out wide only to lose his grip on the ball in Lafai’s last-ditch tackle.
Tom Makinson and Herbie Farnworth were both close to collecting attacking kicks from Jack Welsby and Tomkins but England finally broke through after 24 minutes when second rower Elliott Whitehead supported a half-break by stand-off George Williams to score their first try.
Makinson’s goal made it 6-4 but Samoa went back in front 10 minutes before half-time when Hull second rower Ligi Sao caught England’s defence napping to go over for a straight from dummy half 15 metres out and Crichton converted the try for a 10-6 lead.
England coach Shaun Wane’s stoney-faced expression at half-time summed up the situation and his mood hardly improved despite a huge stroke of good fortune early in the second half.
The luck came courtesy of Lafai, who collected Williams’ kick only to have the ball jolted from his grasp by Watkins and second rower John Bateman was gifted the easiest of tries.
Makinson’s second goal nudged his side back in front but the lead lasted only three minutes as Luai took a return pass from Paulo to get Crichton through a gaping hole wide out for Samoa’s third try, to which Crichton added his second goal.
A knock-on 10 metres from his own line by Dom Young put more pressure on England and half-backs Milford and Luai combined to get Lafai over for his second try after 56 minutes to extend the lead to 20-12.
A spat between Tomkins and Luai, which sparked a show of temper from both sets of players, illustrated the growing tension and the 40,489 crowd began to get behind England, particularly when Farnworth bustled his way past four defenders to score his side’s third try.
Makinson kicked his third conversion and brought the scores level after 67 minutes with a penalty, awarded for a late tackle by Paulo on Tomkins.
England had all the momentum by that stage and were mounting a promising attack when Crichton picked off a pass from Victor Radley meant for Whitehead and sprinted 60 metres for his second try.
Crichton’s third goal gave Samoa a six-point lead but England struck back through Farnworth, who went 70 metres for his second try to finish off a break by Williams – and Makinson kept his nerve to tie the scores once more.
Whitehead managed to charge down Milford’s drop-goal attempt in the second minute of extra-time but, when England were pulled up for a forward pass inside their own half, it gave Samoa another chance to win it and this time Crichton made no mistake from 40 metres out.
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