What a shame. What a crying shame, for the game. This was probably a once in a lifetime moment for Tonga to make a World Cup final, in front of what amounted to a home crowd. But Tonga didn't turn up until the last eight minutes, when they launched an incredible comeback, to score three tries and come back from an imposing 20-0 deficit.

They'll know they should have beaten England, and if the two teams played tomorrow the result would probably be very different.

Forget about the last second controversy – as Andrew Fifita was stripped of the ball in the tackle, which was harshly judged to be a knock on – and focus on the first 72 minutes.

That will be the toughest thing for the players to live with, the empty feeling in the pit of the stomach on Sunday. While they will know that England were the better side – and probably deserved their 20-18 victory – Jason Taumalolo's team will also realise that they saved their worst performance for the biggest occasion.

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The incredible reaction when they finally got going in the last eight minutes – which would have been heard across the Pacific – showed what might have been.

Credit must go to England – and Wayne Bennett – for their clever efficient football. And their defence was something to behold, especially for a period midway through the second half when they continually denied a Tongan onslaught, which seemed to break the spirit of the Pacific nation until their late comeback.

But the occasion was both a help and a hindrance for the Tongan team. While the crowd offered jet fuel propulsion to the men in red – allowing them to hit hard and run even harder – it also played havoc with the synapses in their brain.

They were over-hyped, and didn't settle for the entire first half. World Cup Semi finals are for cool heads and clear minds, but Tonga was living and dying on pure emotion.

To pick one example – but by no means the only – Michael Jennings, who has played Kangaroos tests, Origins football and grand finals, probably made more bad decisions in one game that he has done in his entire career.

It was understandable, to a degree, as they were playing in front of the most incredible atmospheres seen at a New Zealand sporting event. It was better than any All Blacks test in recent memory, and it's hard to remember a league match that rivals it. Maybe the third test at Carlaw Park in 1985? Possibly the Warriors versus Roosters in 2008?

It was a feverish cauldron, with energy and passion that could be felt from Nukua'lofa. But while the crowd delivered everything that could have been expected, the players didn't.

They played some inaccurate – at times dumb football – and kept offering momentum back to England. From Jennings passing off the ground after an 80 metre break, to Manu Ma'u forcing a crazy offload on the first tackle, just after a penalty had taken them inside the England 22, it was coach killer stuff.

Of the many moments, perhaps the worst was Gareth Widdop being tackled in the air, just before his goal line. It was a perfect kick, and he would have been pinned, but Jennings decided to tackle him in the air.

There were moments of inspiration, but quickly followed by poor decisions.

They weren't helped, in the first half at least, by another quirky performance by referee Matt Cecchin, as he is sometimes capable of. His selective calls robbed Tonga of any momentum, and England were good enough to take advantage of it.

That helped them to build a lead, which ultimately they were good enough to hang on to. But it's hard to see them getting close to the Kangaroos next week, when the unique challenge of the Tongans would have offered a much greater threat.