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'You can feel in your guts what's at stake' – England 'pumped' for World Cup semi

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World Cup semi-final: England v Tonga
Venue: Mount Smart Stadium, Auckland Date: 25 November Kick-off: 05:00 GMT
Coverage: Watch live coverage on BBC TV, Connected TV, online & the BBC Sport app from 04:30 GMT and listen to live commentary on BBC Radio 5 live

England’s players can “feel in their guts” the significance of Saturday’s World Cup semi-final against Tonga, says prop Thomas Burgess.

The Lions are aiming to reach their first final in 22 years and to banish painful memories of 2013’s last-gasp defeat by New Zealand in the last four.

Saturday’s game is their fourth semi-final in a row, with the past three lost to the Kiwis.

“England have been here before and failed,” Burgess, 25, said.

Playing in front of 55,000 at Wembley, England were 22 seconds away from victory when Kiwi half-back Shaun Johnson stepped his way through to level and then knocked over the conversion to snatch the win.

“There’s not been much talk of 2013 specifically – it’s about the opportunity that’s in front of us, and we want to take it,” Burgess continued.

“You can feel it in your guts, what’s at stake. It’s a big occasion. We want to do well for each other and the fans and everyone back home watching. We’re all pretty pumped.”

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South Sydney Rabbitohs forward Burgess starts from the bench in Saturday’s game, which is live on BBC One and BBC Radio 5 live, and has featured in all four games so far.

England’s campaign started with a narrow 18-4 defeat by Australia, followed by wins against Lebanon, France and Papua New Guinea.

By contrast, Tonga have won all four of their fixtures on the way to the semi-finals, including an impressive victory against New Zealand.

Reigning champions Australia thrashed Fiji 54-6 in Friday’s first semi-final to book their place in the Brisbane final on Saturday, 2 December.

Route to the last four
England Tonga
Pool A game one: v Australia L18-4 Pool B game one: v Scotland W50-4
Pool A game two: v Lebanon W29-10 Pool B game two: v Samoa W32-18
Pool A game three: v France W36-6 Pool B game three: v New Zealand W28-22
Quarter-final: v Papua New Guinea W36-6 Quarter-final: v Lebanon W24-22

Coping with the pressure

Mount Smart Stadium in Auckland

Not only do England have the weight of expectation on their shoulders as a tier-one nation, but the match against the Pacific islanders is in Auckland, where a big contingent of supporters have turned the city into ‘Little Tonga’.

The city’s 30,000-seat Mount Smart Stadium is sold out, with the biggest crowd expected at the stadium since the Auckland Warriors joined the Australian Rugby League in 1995.

“There’s great pressure on us but I think it’s a great privilege,” Burgess added.

“We know Tonga are a great side. They’ve performed out of their skin so far in the World Cup. We’ve just got to play our game, that’s all we need to do.”

Assistant coach Denis Betts played for the Warriors during his career – as well as 32 Great Britain Tests and four for England – and expects the players to thrive in the “cauldron” of partisan support.

“You want it to feel like a hostile environment, where we have to really put our games on the line,” Betts said. “It’s exciting for me, and I’m not even playing.”

England wary of Tonga pack threat

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Tonga’s nickname offers some insight into how passionate the players are about their nation.

‘Mate Ma’a Tonga’ translates as ‘Die for Tonga’, so it’s perhaps no wonder that players such as Jason Taumalolo and Andrew Fifita were happy to turn down offers from New Zealand and Australia to play for the countries from which their families descend.

Their presences have added to an already impressive squad that features star NRL players like Daniel Tupou, Michael Jennings and Konrad Hurrell, and has elevated Tonga from plucky entertainers to genuine challengers.

“They’re both leaders for their NRL teams,” Burgess continued. “They’re very strong, hard to put down and they get their team going forward.

“You always want to play against the best players. As a forward pack, it will be a great test for us. I’ll come off the bench and try to add some energy, but the boys starting have a big challenge on their hands.

“It’s something we’re really looking forward to. I reckon that’s where it’s going to be won.”

England will be buoyed by Lebanon’s resistance in the quarter-finals, where the Cedars came within two points and a string of chalked-off tries of dumping out Tonga in Christchurch.

However, Tonga head coach Kristian Woolf expects improvement on that display in Saturday’s final eliminator.

“Even though we won that game last week to put us in the semi-finals, it almost felt like we’d lost,” Woolf said of his side’s 24-22 win.

“We realise we weren’t at our best. But we’ve had a really good week and allowed them to freshen up a bit and they’re ready to go.

“It’s not lost on our blokes what they’ve done so far – Tonga had never been to a quarter-final before – they’re just really excited by what’s in front of them.”

Team news

Kevin Brown has been selected by England after coming through concussion protocols following last weekend’s quarter-final against Papua New Guinea.

The 33-year-old was withdrawn at half-time after social media footage showed he had been knocked out in a challenge with a PNG player.

“Kevin is fit, he’s always been fit,” said Betts. “He was never in doubt. We just had to go through the protocol that has been put in place by the World Cup.”

Talismanic back-rower Sam Burgess is also fit after an ankle injury, so England keep the same squad that defeated PNG.

Tonga make one change, with hooker Siliva Havili coming in for Sione Katoa, who drops to the bench.

England: Widdop; McGillvary, Watkins, Bateman, Hall; Brown, Gale; Hill, Hodgson, Graham, S. Burgess, Whitehead, O’Loughlin

Replacements: Walmsley, T. Burgess, Currie, Roby

Reserve bench: Lomax, Heighington

Tonga: Hopoate; Tupou, Jennings, Hurrell, Fusitu’a; Lolohea, Hingano; Fifita, Havili, Taukeiaho, Ma’u, Manu, Taumalolo

Replacements: Katoa, Terepo, Tangai Jr, Murdoch-Masila

Reserve bench: Moa, Vatuvei

You can follow the fortunes of your favourite team with live match notifications sent straight to your phone or tablet via the BBC Sport app. Line-up, kick-off, score, half-time and full-time options are available for all teams participating at the World Cup.

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