The greatest games between the greatest teams can often be defined by the narrowest of margins. And that proved the case here in the decisive moments of this trans-Tasman classic, as any New Zealand supporter will be at pains to tell you.
The headline is that the usual ending the game is accustomed to came to fruition here. Only once have Australia failed to reach the Rugby League World Cup Final and that was back at the inaugural competition in 1954. It was a record which looked seriously under threat at various stages of an unforgettable semi-final, though.
New Zealand more than played their part in a classic. They will perhaps feel they had the greater chances to win. On two separate occasions in the second half they thought they had scored tries which could have ended the Kangaroos’ reign as world champions. But on both occasions they were denied by agonising margins. First, Jordan Rapana was fractionally offside in a passage of play that led to Peta Hiku touching down.
That would have given them a two-score lead but it was ruled out. And then in the final frenetic moments, Hiku was again involved as he grounded a Dylan Brown kick. But Hiku grounded the ball on the line, again millimetres away from scoring the try that would have sent New Zealand to the World Cup final.
“That was one hell of a game and it was one bounce of a ball,” New Zealand’s beaten coach, Michael Maguire, said. “That’s what a Test match is all about. But I’m shattered for my players. Opportunities like those are few and far between against a team of this class. If you don’t take them, you will be punished."
Australia’s coach, Mal Meninga, said: “That was Test match rugby. New Zealand threw everything but the kitchen sink at us. It was a great advertisement for the game.” His side emerged through a real tussle here despite having trailed for large periods.
That included at half-time, when the Kiwis had forged a 14-10 lead. Jahrome Hughes’ try broke the deadlock before Australia hit back with a truly world-class try as Ben Hunt’s cross-field kick was claimed on the full by the sensational Josh Addo-Carr, who outpaced Rapana for his 12th try of the tournament.
A penalty from the boot of Rapana nudged New Zealand ahead before Valentine Holmes crossed to put the Kangaroos into the lead for the first time. The game was being played at breakneck pace and, just as it seemed as though Australia would go into the break ahead, the Kiwis scored again when Brown finished a break from Ronaldo Mulitalo.
Hiku’s first disallowed try felt like a pivotal moment. It would have created a two-score lead for the first time but Australia took full advantage of that opportunity to score what proved to be the game-winning try as Cameron Murray powered over from close range after the Kiwis were caught cold from a penalty.
And that was that for the scoring: but not for the drama. New Zealand came again in the final moments and, as Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad broke from deep, it looked as if the Kiwis might be about to end Australia’s reign of dominance. But again the try that would have swung the semi-final in their favour evaded them by millimetres after Hiku grounded Brown’s kick on the line: and Australia survived.
It was exhilarating from start to finish and as good an advert for international rugby league as one will find. Hopefully those who have pushed against the international game for so long in Australia were watching. They will not have been disappointed.