Australia coach Mal Meninga hailed “one of the best Test matches I have been involved in” as the defending champions sneaked past New Zealand in a breathtaking semi-final to reach their 15th consecutive Rugby League World Cup final.
Rugby League World Cup 2021 semi-final
Australia (10) 16
Tries: Addo-Carr, Holmes, Murray Goals: Cleary 2
New Zealand (14) 14
Tries: Hughes, Brown Goals: Rapana 3
Meninga’s men came through a stern examination and will face the winner of England against Samoa in the final at Old Trafford next Saturday (kick-off 16:00 GMT).
In a tight and tense contest, New Zealand went ahead through Jahrome Hughes and although the lightning-quick Josh Addo-Carr and Valentine Holmes responded for Australia, Dylan Brown’s try gave the Kiwis a 14-10 half-time lead.
Peta Hiku’s effort was ruled out for offside at the start of the second half and New Zealand were made to pay as Cameron Murray burrowed over from close range, which ultimately proved crucial.
Australia controlled much of the second period but it looked like they might have lost the contest with seven minutes remaining when Hiku touched down in the corner, but he was ruled to be in touch as the holders scraped through.
Former St Helens centre Meninga, who has won the World Cup as a player (1992) and coach (2017), said: “I am really happy for the boys, it was a real Test match. We hadn’t had that for a number of years and I’m pleased with the effort, commitment and all the characteristics you want in your players.
“Sometimes you don’t get what you want, you have to keep on hanging in there to win a footy game. From my experience that is one of the best Test matches I have been involved in.
“We can be better, we will learn from it but that is what playing for your country means. It doesn’t look pretty at times but you have to get through it.”
‘An England team with superstars all over’
Australia progress in familiar story
Champions Australia have totally dominated the international game and are now looking to extend their record by lifting the trophy for the 12th occasion.
In a repeat of the 2013 final, when Australia ran out comfortable 34-2 winners at Old Trafford, this was a much closer contest but it was green and gold that showed their mettle with a controlled, disciplined kicking game to edge through.
The semi-final saw both sides go toe-to-toe in an intense display full of speed and skill which brought a raucous Elland Road crowd to their feet, cheering each brutal hit that was being exchanged.
The Kiwis set the tone with an intense haka and took a shock early lead as scrum-half Hughes went over following Joseph Manu’s brilliant tap back from Brown’s high kick.
But Addo-Carr showcased why he is the NRL’s fastest player – a competition in which he clocked a speed of 24 miles per hour last season – in scoring an exceptional first try for Australia.
The winger, nicknamed The Foxx, showed a remarkable turn of pace from 35 metres out to latch on to Ben Hunt’s booming kick and touch down in the corner.
It was Addo-Carr’s 12th try of the tournament, drawing him alongside team-mate Holmes’ record from the 2017 tournament, with Holmes grabbing the next try by going over from Jack Wighton’s last-ditch pass.
The Kiwis were under the cosh but responded through Brown after he was put in by Ronaldo Mulitalo breaking clear for a 14-10 lead.
A dramatic start to the second half saw Hiku touch down from Addo-Carr’s fumble, but the try was agonisingly ruled out by the video referee as the centre had strayed fractionally offside.
The Aussies took advantage as Murray evaded the challenge of three defenders to stretch over in between the sticks, which Nathan Cleary crucially converted for a two-point lead.
With time running out, Jordan Rapana ripped through the opposition backline with a brilliant run and Hiku thought he had clinched victory for New Zealand by acrobatically touching down, but they were left heartbroken as the video referee ruled against them once again.
New Zealand slumped down to the pitch at the final whistle, with a number of players in tears, being consoled by their joyous opponents who will contest the showpiece once again.
Kiwis coach Michael Maguire said: “Definitely proud of the players, that is for sure. A couple of moments in the game could have gone either way but unfortunately for the boys it didn’t go their way. If it did it would have been a different story.
“I am really pleased with how they have come together as a group and I believe we have closed the gap in a big way at this level.”
Skipper Jesse Bromwich added: “I am really proud of the boys and their efforts. It is pretty disappointing, we had the intention of coming here and winning the tournament.
“To fall short like this is pretty heart-breaking. We put in so much effort. It is hard to process at the moment. I am devastated.”