Australia win tit-for-tat tie with New Zealand

Leeds (United Kingdom) (AFP) - Reigning champions Australia advanced to the final of the Rugby League World Cup after an enthralling 16-14 victory over New Zealand in Leeds on Friday in the first meeting between the two heavyweights since October 2019.

New Zealand, who won the Cup in 2008, held a 14-10 lead at half-time at Elland Road as a tit-for-tat game unfolded showcasing a masterclass of execution under pressure.

Tries by Kiwi half-backs Jahrome Hughes and Dylan Brown bookended two from Australian wingers Josh Addo-Carr and Valentine Holmes in a top-quality first-half that saw Jordan Rapana convert both Kiwi tries and hit a penalty, while Nathan Cleary managed just one conversion.

A Cameron Murray piledriver and a second Cleary conversion were the sole scores in a nail-biting second period to ensure Mal Meninga’s Australia made the November 19 final in Manchester – the Kangaroos haven’t missed one since 1954.

Tournament hosts England take on Samoa in the second semi-final, at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium on Saturday.

“Rugby league, it’s good to have it back,” said Australia coach Mal Meninga. “New Zealand threw everything, the kitchen sink at us, I thought we handled it well.

“We created a lot of opportunities, they created a lot of opportunities. We scrambled, we had all the things you want to see in a Test match.

“I’m just happy we got through it and are into the final. We’re pretty healthy as well which is great.”

A predictably hard-hitting opening saw a dangerous Brandon Smith dink well fielded by Kangaroos skipper James Tedesco, whose head-to-head with Kiwi counterpart and Sydney Roosters teammate Joseph Manu was just one of many sub-plots to the game.

And it was a soaring Manu leap that made the difference for the opening score.

The full-back fielded a Brown cross-kick and had the poise to instantly offload the ball into the hands of the waiting Hughes, who plonked over the line.

Rapana converted, to the delight of the partisan 28,113 crowd at Leeds United’s home ground.

The Kiwis’ lead didn’t last long, however, as Addo-Carr scored another mesmerising try to equal teammate Holmes’ record of 12 tries in a single World Cup.

When Ben Hunt punted high to the left corner deep into New Zealand territory, the kick looked nothing more than a tester on the fifth tackle, but Addo-Carr streaked through, with opposite number Rapana caught napping, to take the ball on the run for a four-pointer Cleary converted.

Rapana booted a 25th minute penalty to briefly restore New Zealand’s lead before some excellent Australian build-up work saw Jack Wighton skip past Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad’s attempted tackle and head towards the tryline.

Although Wighton was brought down, he wasn’t held in the tackle, the centre instead spinning and somehow managing to cough the ball up to Holmes who scooped it up and dotted down in the corner.

Cleary missed the conversion to leave it 10-8 to the Kangaroos, but such was the nature of a gripping first 40 minutes that the Kiwis came roaring back, Ronaldo Mulitalo played into space down his wing and finding Brown on his inside for their side’s second try.

Rapana converted to hand New Zealand a 14-10 half-time lead.

The Kangaroos, for whom Liam Martin was outstanding in defence, were greeted by boos and whistles when they ran out for the second period, repeated after a Peta Hiku try was ruled out for offside.

Two early losses of the ball for Australia in contact saw New Zealand seize momentum.

But the Kangaroos are nothing but competitive and, spurning a shot at goal after Manu fouled Cameron Munster at dummy-half, sent Murray over on a fine crashball, Cleary hitting the extras.

Tensions flared as both teams tired and some late hits came in, the Australian halves starting to dictate territorial possession.

Hiku had a second try disallowed by the referee as the game went to the wire.

But when Lattrell Mitchell fielded one last-gasp up-and-under from the Kiwis, the Kangaroos held on to possession and went through their set of six to the hooter to bring an end to a classic game of league.