New Zealand's players celebrate after winning the World Cup

Auckland (AFP) - New Zealand put their “struggles” behind them to win the women’s Rugby World Cup with a thrilling 34-31 victory over England in front of a record 40,000 crowd in Auckland on Saturday.

The Black Ferns retained their title in a spectacular end to a tournament that broke records for attendances and came after England played three-quarters of the final with 14 players.

Winger Ayesha Leti-I’iga put the hosts ahead with their sixth try and they held on at Eden Park to halt England’s world-record winning streak at 30 matches. It was New Zealand’s sixth World Cup title.

England winger Lydia Thompson was shown a red card for a head-high tackle but they still nearly pulled off victory thanks to the ferocity of their forward play.

Four of England’s five tries came from lineout drives, including a hat-trick to hooker Amy Cokayne, and they were handed a chance to snatch victory in the dying minutes.

However, two lineout drives were repelled by the home team on their tryline and when England knocked on, the 40,000 crowd – a record for a women’s rugby match – erupted in noise.

It completed a transformation for New Zealand under former All Blacks coach Wayne Smith, who was introduced after they were thrashed twice in England a year ago despite being reigning world champions.

Smith had steered the Black Ferns to 11 straight wins but his team were still underdogs against a Red Roses side he labelled one of the best teams in the history of men’s or women’s rugby.

Scrumhalf Kendra Cocksedge, who is retiring as the most-capped Black Fern after snaring a third world crown, feared her team’s hopes were over in April when a review into last year’s European tour revealed a “toxic” culture.

It led to the resignation of 2017 title-winnning coach Glenn Moore.

“This team’s been through some struggles in the last 12 months,” Cocksedge, 34, said.

“To play a part in winning a World Cup, at Eden Park with an amazing crowd, there’s no words for it. For the first time in my career, I’m speechless.

“We’ve come so far. Everyone’s fallen in love with the Black Ferns and we’ve just fizzed off it in the last six to eight weeks and I’ve just had a fairytale ending.

“I don’t think it gets much better than this.”

- ‘That was entertainment’ -

New Zealand stayed true to the expansive, attacking style they had used with success all tournament and it ultimately triumphed over England’s efficient, power-based game.

Winger Ruby Tui, one of several Olympic champion sevens players in the New Zealand team, hoped the spectacle – as much as the result – would prompt more girls to take up rugby globally.

She noted large numbers had also watched two compelling semi-finals last week, including New Zealand’s 25-24 nail-biter against France.

“If you like sport, take away the gender and think, what’s entertaining you?” she said.

“Because I’ll guarantee you, that semi and that final, that was entertainment.”

Tui led the crowd in a rendition of Maori folk song “Tutira Mai”, mirroring the scenes at Eden Park when the All Blacks won the men’s 2011 World Cup final.

- England lose control -

A breathless first half featured seven tries and the red card.

England took early control through tries to fullback Ellie Kildunne and Cokayne before the game burst into life when Thompson was sent off for a 19th-minute tackle on Portia Woodman which left the star Black Ferns winger unable to continue.

New Zealand’s immediate response was a try to hooker Georgia Ponsonby which set off a tit-for-tat scoring pattern.

Flanker Marlie Packer and Cokayne both scored from English lineout drives but the hosts responded both times, through Woodman’s replacement, Leti-I’iga, and prop Amy Rule.

The home side hit the front through tries soon after the interval to centre Stacey Fluhler and prop Krystal Murray.

However, the match swung back to England when Cokayne bagged her third try and New Zealand lost momentum in the 65th minute when replacement forward Kennedy Simon was shown a yellow card for a high tackle.

Still a player down, New Zealand rolled the dice by launching an audacious wide attack and it paid off as Leti-I’iga scored her second try.

France hammered Canada 36-0 for third place.

France scored five tries to secure bronze for a remarkable seventh time in nine World Cups.