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England ends Fiji's crowd-pleasing run at Rugby World Cup with tense win to reach semifinals

Ben Earl England Rugby Ben Earl - The Canadian Press

MARSEILLE, France (AP) — The lead was 14 points, the Rugby World Cup semifinals were in sight and there was a celebratory feel to England fans’ booming rendition of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” that swirled around Stade Velodrome with a little over 20 minutes left.

Then Fiji finally turned up.

The World Cup quarterfinals delivered another heart-stopper on Sunday as England held on in the face of a valiant fightback from the Flying Fijians to end the crowd-pleasing run of the tournament darlings by a tense 30-24.

English hopes of a second world title were written off six weeks ago after a lackluster first ever loss to Fiji at Twickenham.

Now, a victory over the same opponent has carried them into the semifinals for the sixth time in 10 editions of rugby's biggest event. Host France or defending champion South Africa await in Paris on Saturday.

“The players were written off," England coach Steve Borthwick said. “A lot of people said we wouldn’t get out of the pool. We got out of the pool, now we got out of the quarterfinals.”

It was a welcome result for the northern hemisphere a day after quarterfinal losses for Ireland and Wales. Those were tension-filled matches but it seemed like England would be bucking that trend after taking a 24-10 lead after 55 minutes against a Fijian team yet to deliver the attacking flair the rugby world was hoping for.

Eventually it came. Replacement prop Peni Ravai rumbled through for one try, flyhalf Vilimoni Botitu finished off a flowing team move for another in the 68th, England was suddenly falling off tackles and the score was 24-24.

The Pacific Island nation couldn’t, though, complete the comeback. A drop goal — England knows plenty about them in big Rugby World Cup matches — by captain Owen Farrell nudged his team back in the lead in the 72nd minute and he booted a penalty to build a six-point cushion Fiji couldn't close, despite a frenetic finale featuring Fijian possession into the sixth minute off added-on time.

“Bit of mixed emotion,” Fiji captain Waisea Nayacalevu said. "Where we’ve come from, where we are.”

A campaign containing an unfortunate loss to Wales, a storied win over Australia and a third appearance in the quarterfinals — after 1987 and 2007 — will still be celebrated back home in the Fijian republic by its rugby-mad fans, who had to get up in the small hours of the morning to watch the game.

In the end, Fiji got to within a converted try of becoming the first tier two team to get to the semifinals since the game went professional after the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

As for England’s players, they have taken advantage of a kind draw to reach the last four without having played any team in the top five of the world ranking. They will be the underdogs in their semifinal in Paris on Saturday but that might yet work in their favor, with expectations set to be low — outside the squad at least.

“These players have an opportunity in Paris in the semifinal,” said Borthwick, who continued with the world-is-against-us narrative. "I am sure we will be written off again but these players rise to the occasion.”

The Fijians paid the price for a slow start that saw England centers Manu Tuilagi and Joe Marchant score tries in the opening 23 minutes and Fiji winger Vinaya Habosi get a sin-binning for head-on-head contact with England fullback Marcus Smith, who finished the game with a fat top lip and a blood-splattered No. 15 jersey.

England surprisingly dominated the breakdown and had the game's star performer in No. 8 Ben Earl, whose coming-of-age display featured a rampaging 50-meter run through the middle in the final minutes when many players were out on their feet.

Fiji's famed open-play threat came only in the final half-hour, with the crowd in Marseille particular enjoying a storming break by winger Semi Radradra from the kickoff at 24-17 where he barged through one England lock in Ollie Chessum, left another — Maro Itoje — flailing and then sent the unfortunate Smith backward and onto the ground.

Like in New Zealand's titanic win over Ireland on Saturday night, there was late drama as Fiji went through the phases with the clock in the red and earned a penalty after Farrell, who kicked 20 points, deliberately knocked on in center-field.

He avoided a yellow card and Itoje and Courtney Lawes combined to produce the match-clinching turnover.

England lived to fight another day. Fiji goes home as the heroes of rugby's dreamers.

“Thank you to every supporter that we have here in France, worldwide, the 900,000 in Fiji that travelled distances to find WiFi, to find a connection to watch us," Fiji coach Simon Raiwalui.

“We really feel that support since we came together 15 weeks ago. We wanted to create something different, a connection back to our people, our supporters. I hope we did them proud."