Owen Farrell helped boot England into their sixth Rugby World Cup semi-final after surviving an incredible late fightback from Fiji at the Stade Velodrome in Marseille on Sunday.
England topped Pool D with four victories from four, but they took on a Fiji side in the last eight who inflicted their last defeat in the build-up to this tournament.
Steve Bortwick’s side appeared to be cruising into the semi-finals at 24-10 ahead deep in the second half but the Pacific Islanders mounted a sensational fightback to level matters with 10 minutes to go before Farrell’s boot rescued England and secured a 30-24 victory.
England – Tries: Tuilagi (14) Marchant (23). Cons: Farrell. Pens: Farrell (11,34,38,54,78). Drop goal: Farrell (72).
Fiji – Tries: Mata (28) Ravai (64) Botitu (68). Cons: Lomani, Kuruvoli (2). Pens: Lomani (20).
George Ford, the architect of England’s critical pool-stage victory over Argentina, dropped to the bench with captain Farrell moving from inside centre and Joe Marchant joining Manu Tuilagi in midfield.
Elsewhere, Harlequins playmaker Marcus Smith was preferred to Freddie Steward and made only a second Test start in the full-back position.
After a cagey opening 10 minutes, referee Mathieu Raynal handed England the chance to open the scoring in front of the posts after Fiji were penalised for not rolling away and Farrell duly obliged.
Moments later, England went through two phases from the lineout before the dangerous Tuilagi spun away and dived down in the corner for his 20th try for his country and an 8-0 lead after Farrell hit the post with his conversion.
Scrum half Frank Lomani made up for an earlier missed penalty by converting with his second attempt to get Fiji on the board but it was the men in white who continued their bright start when Joe Marchant barrowed over from close range with Farrell putting over the extras for a comfortable 15-3 lead.
Things went from bad to worse for the Fijians when wing Vinaya Habosi caught Smith full in the face with his head and was sent to the sin-bin for 10 minutes.
However, despite being down to 14-players, No 8 Viliame Mata produced a moment of magic to outfox the England defence with a neat show and go to cross over the whitewash. Lomani converted to reduce the deficit to 15-10.
Farrell and England’s breakdown success delighted Princess of Wales, Kate Middleton, in the stands, by completing a penalty hat-trick as further cracks appeared in Fiji’s discipline, and Borthwick’s side led by 11 points at the break.
Both sides hardly charged into the quarter-finals in a blaze of glory, but they were desperate to grasp a glorious opportunity to progress, especially as Fiji upped the tempo at the start of the second half.
Despite looking dangerous, Fiji were continually being beaten to the breakdown and were caught offside. Farrell slotted over his fourth penalty to keep the scoreboard ticking over.
The Pacific Island nation recorded their first-ever win over England when the two teams last met – a 30-22 triumph in a World Cup warm-up match at Twickenham back in August and some wonderful rugby enabled them to close the gap to within punching distance when Peni Ravai burst through to get over the line with Kuruvoli converting.
Fiji were not going quietly and in an incredible turnaround they sliced England apart to score again through Vilimoni Botitu under the posts with Kuruvoli’s second successful conversion tying things up at 24-24 with 10 to go.
A pulsating finale continued at pace, with Farrell then dropping a goal to put England three points ahead, and after Ben Earl’s stunning break resulted in another Farrell penalty, Fiji were unable to pull off a late miracle.
The vagaries of the draw presented a less-than-perilous route to the semi-finals for England and, having now navigated it, they will be out to seize their opportunity at reaching a fourth World Cup final next Saturday.
Farrell: We had to find a way to win I Borthwick: We are determined to be successful
Owen Farrell, speaking to ITV
“It was what we expected. They are a tough, tough team that can turn it on in the blink of an eye. I thought we started the game really well. We really got after it in that first half.
“We always knew Fiji were going to have some good patches and they did. To find a way to win and get through to the semi-finals is a big step forward but we know we have plenty of work to do.”
England head coach Steve Borthwick, speaking to ITV
“I thought the players were magnificent. The whole squad has worked very, very hard to get that result tonight,” said Borthwick.
“I have to give immense credit to Fiji. They played tremendously well tonight and they have had a fantastic World Cup. I am obviously delighted we found a way to win that game.
“I thought the vast majority of the game we were in control. There was a spell in the second half were they scored two back-to-back tries.
“What I was really pleased with was how the players handled it thereafter.
“A lot has been written about these players and this England team over the last period of time and what I see is a group of players that can handle and rise to these occasions.
“We don’t forget that many people said that we weren’t going to make it out of the group and then there was firmness that we would lose tonight.
“These players will be written off again I am pretty sure but when I see these players, I see a fantastic group of people who are determined to be successful, determined to be the best versions of themselves.”
Fiji coach Simon Raiwalui was nearly in tears in his post-match interview. “This is just the beginning for this Fiji team,” he says. “I couldn’t be prouder.”
England, who won their only Webb Ellis Cup in 2003, and have been beaten World Cup finalists on three occasions in 1991, 2007 and 2019 will take on hosts France or holders South Africa in the semi-finals the Stade de France in Paris, scheduled for next Saturday October 21 (8pm kick-off BST).
New Zealand, who progressed to the World Cup semi-finals for the ninth time in their history, will face Michael Cheika’s Argentina, who are into their first semi-final since 2015, at the same venue on Friday October 20 (8pm kick-off BST).
The Pumas beat the All Blacks for the first time in Sydney in the 2020 Rugby Championship and repeated the feat last year on New Zealand soil in Christchurch.