Tonga were robbed. That is the only possible conclusion from the end of tonight's World Cup semifinal.

Not necessarily robbed of victory, but robbed of the peace of mind of knowing what really unfolded in the desperate last 10 seconds of the match, as they launched a final, furious assault on the English line as they trailed 20-18.

Referee Matt Cecchin had to at least check what happened as Andrew Fifita stormed towards the line, before losing the ball in a tackle, then regathering it to force it over the line.

There were definite grounds for an appeal, and in other circumstances it could have been ruled a try.

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Over the last few seasons of the NRL there have been calls made in the attacking teams' favour in similar cases, and in that case we would be celebrating surely the greatest comeback in World Cup history.

Cecchin had a career defining call – and froze. It may not have been a try – upon closer examination, as it is probably most likely that Fifita could have been guilty of a loose carry. But there was nothing to lose from checking, and that is what will hurt the men in red tonight, and across the summer.

"What I don't understand with that one, when the game's on the line why you don't check it," said a clearly shattered Tongan coach Kristian Woolf. "I don't know if it's a try or not because I haven't seen it again. I don't know if we were robbed. [But] I can't believe we don't look at it. The game's on the line."

"I was happy with it as a try," said Fifita, as he stood outside a disappointed but proud Tongan dressing room. "But grounded or not, everyone knows the outcome. It was very hurtful at the end, but it's done now"

England coach Wayne Bennett had a different interpretation.

"The same thing happened before with [Jerome] McGillvary," said Bennett, referring to the moment a minute or so before Fifita's play when England had regained the ball but then the Huddersfield winger lost it in a similar tackle that was judged a knock on.

"The referee has allowed play on. It was a one on one," said Bennett. "With Fifita it wasn't a try because the ball was stripped off him."

If Cecchin wants to know what to do next time – if he has another opportunity – take a look back at the 2008 World Cup final. Benji Marshall made a half break, before losing the ball in a tackle. Jerome Ropati scooped it up, and sprinted away to score. The referee decided to play on, and the video referee eventually ruled a try, which proved critical to the final outcome. But Tonga will also wonder what might have been, if they had woken up earlier. They didn't truly harness the power of the biggest, and surely best crowd, in two decades of league in New Zealand, until the 72nd minute.

Any positive scoring play before that – even just one try – and we would be talking about a different outcome on Sunday, as Woolf emphasized.