Australia’s defence of the Rugby League World Cup is alive after they withheld a spirited New Zealand to claim a 16-14 semi-final win in Leeds.
The Kiwis had endured an underwhelming tournament to date, but saved their best for last when they pushed the Kangaroos to the wire in front of 28,113 fans at Elland Road.
Cameron Murray’s 52nd-minute try proved the difference and ensures Australia will now play the winner of Saturday’s (Sunday AEDT) other semi-final between England and Samoa next week at Old Trafford.
The Kangaroos will need the extra day of rest given the battering they got at the hands of the Kiwis in their first trans-Tasman game since 2019.
“New Zealand didn’t allow us to do what we wanted to do,” said Kangaroos coach Mal Meninga.
“There’s improvement in us but we had to come up with some special efforts.
“It was a grind tonight, we just had to outwork them.”
Kiwis coach Michael Maguire rolled the dice, moving Nelson Asofa-Solomona back to the bench, dropping Kenny Bromwich and deploying Isaiah Papali’i and Briton Nikora in the back-row.
One of Papali’i’s early probing runs down the left led to their opening try after 11 minutes.
Dylan Brown poked a chip-kick just short of the Australian line with Joey Manu batting the ball back into the hands of Jahrome Hughes.
The Kiwis halfback squeezed his way over the line and winger Jordan Rapana was able to convert.
Australia were quick to respond when Ben Hunt sent a speculative crossfield kick over Rapana’s head and Josh Addo-Carr was able to score his 12th try of the tournament, matching the record set by Australian winger Valentine Holmes in the 2017 World Cup.
Nathan Cleary converted to tie the game at 6-6 before Rapana nudged the Kiwis ahead with a penalty for an offside.
Holmes hit back for Australia on the half-hour mark, but a lightning-quick run from Ronaldo Mulitalo down the touchline led to Brown going over just before the break to give the Kiwis a 14-10 lead.
It was the first time Australia had conceded from open play in this tournament and meant they went in at the break behind on the scoreboard for the first time since 2015.
New Zealand went close to extending their lead just after the interval when centre Peta Hiku touched down.
Video referee Chris Kendall said Rapana had been offside and it allowed Australia to relieve some pressure and go up the other end.
They got their reward when Manu was penalised by referee Ashley Klein for lying in the ruck on the Kiwis’ line and Murray crashed over on a one-up hit-up.
Tempers begun to fray. Papali’i screamed in Cleary’s face after he spilled the ball and Liam Martin sparked a melee when he forced Asofa-Solomona into a loose carry.
Neither side was able to put the game to bed and New Zealand were given the strongest chance when Rapana went on a cavalier run from the backfield.
Hughes put in a grubberkick for Hiku but the ball just trickled dead along with the Kiwis’ hopes of victory.
“They put so much into it,” Maguire said.
“We’ve all been dedicated to turning up and they wanted to win for their country and they did.
“We were willing to grind, that’s the style the players are changing the jersey towards.”