Turns out, it was less of a rivalry after all. Instead, it was an exercise in perfect patience from England, who swatted aside the co-hosts Australia to book a place in a first World Cup final, at the third time of asking. The European champions will return here to face Spain on Sunday and, on this showing, it will not faze them.

A goal from a resurgent Ella Toone was cancelled out by the talismanic Sam Kerr, who made her long anticipated first start, but Lauren Hemp and Alessia Russo confined the home team to a limp but heroes’ exit.

The stage was set, Sydney fizzing with a gentle anticipation. People in suits headed to work wearing green and gold scarves, children customised school uniforms, chalkboard signs outside coffee shops sold dreams not wares. As kick-off ticked closer the tension built, but this was not tension fraught with nerves, more hope. Win or lose, once the dust, or ashes (sorry), had settled, a much greater win was already taking place and would not be halted by the scoreline.

England were unchanged from the side that beat Colombia 2-1 in the same stadium. It was the first time Sarina Wiegman had named the same starting XI in back-to-back games at this World Cup, with an injury to Keira Walsh against Denmark and the suspension of Lauren James for treading on Nigeria’s Michelle Alozie forcing her to tread an unfamiliar path after she fielded the same XI throughout last year’s Euros.

The big news from the Australia camp was that Kerr would start. Although Tony Gustavsson had been ambiguous in his pre-match press conference on the availability of the forward, she had been more emphatic about her readiness after the penalty shootout defeat of France. Kerr replaced Emily van Egmond, and Manchester City’s Alanna Kennedy dropped out with an illness, with Clare Polkinghorne coming into the defence.

Kerr was treated to a bruising introduction. Within two minutes, Keira Walsh crunched on to one of her feet – “I slipped,” protested the midfielder with a grin afterwards – and, not long after, Alex Greenwood was booked for sliding in late on the forward. It felt calculated, a ‘welcome back’ with a twist from players so familiar with her threat.

Alessia Russo slots England’s third goal past Mackenzie Arnold.

Alessia Russo slots England’s third goal past Mackenzie Arnold. Photograph: Mark Baker/AP

Between those moments Kerr showed a flash of what she does best, Katrina Gorry sending a ball over the top towards her that caught out Millie Bright and Jess Carter, but Australia’s captain was offside before Mary Earps saved her effort.

There had been a lot of focus on the pressure of the occasion. Would England handle a hostile crowd? Would the Matildas be able to bear the weight of a nation fully brought on board with their journey?

England appeared the more comfortable, the experience of a fifth consecutive major tournament semi-final showing in their play. There was a calmness, a patience, to their passing that left the yellow shirts, on the pitch and in the crowd, increasingly frustrated.

Australia’s quarter-final shootout hero Mackenzie Arnold was forced into a save with a shin from Georgia Stanway, and Russo hit the side netting after being forced wide by a tracking Clare Hunt.

The goal to dampen the crowd was coming and it was sumptuous. Lauren Hemp kept the ball in play and flicked it to Russo, the Arsenal forward pulled it back and although it was behind the Hemp’s trailing leg, Toone was there to sweep a shot into the far corner.

Sam Kerr unleashes the shot that drew Australia level.

Sam Kerr unleashes the shot that drew Australia level. Photograph: Brendon Thorne/Getty Images

Half-time bought some much-needed relief for the hosts. England had been happy to toy with their opponents but with Kerr on the pitch, no matter what the run of play, teams are never safe. Despite seeming shot, the mercurial Kerr is never out of a game. Just past the hour she received the ball in her half before advancing towards her retreating club-mates Bright and Carter and lashing past Earps from the edge of the box via a small deflection off Bright. It was trademark Kerr, pulling a rabbit out of a hat where there was no hat, and the crowd erupted with a fierce relief that sent chills down the spine.

That joy would last eight minutes, Hemp vying with Ellie Carpenter for Bright’s ball from deep, only for the Australia defender to swing and miss, allowing Hemp to stroke past Arnold. Kerr’s face displayed enough frustration for everyone in the ground, but she twice failed to level from gilt-edged opportunities, first sending a close-range header over the bar then putting a volley wide of the near post while unmarked on the six-yard line.

She would be punished for her rare profligacy, her match sharpness letting her down at the cruellest of moments as England powered up the other end and sealed victory. Hemp darted towards the box, waiting, and waiting again, before playing a slick through ball to Russo, who fired past Arnold.

Alessia Russo

For Australia it was a bruising end to a run that had promised and delivered so much. There will be what ifs aplenty attached to Kerr’s late misses and fitness during the tournament, but there will also be some solace in the collective joy that has washed over the nation and is unlikely to vanish.

England march stoically towards their first World Cup final and Wiegman’s second – the manager’s first (with the Netherlands in 2019) being the only tournament game she has lost as a national team head coach. Their composure and clinical finishing make them a formidable force capable of giving Spain’s passing game a real test.