Australia and New Zealand; the Jillaroos and the Kiwi Ferns: the top two teams teams in Group B and most fans favourites to contest the finals ended the group stages of the rugby league women’s World Cup when they met in in the last pool game at York’s LNER Community Stadium.
Both teams had yet to lose a game in the competition, but that would change for one of them, who would then face England in the semi-finals, while the winner would face Papua New Guinea.
The Ferns kicked off and got first use of the ball, after Australia let it bounce out of the field, and then promptly gave up possession with a faulty play-the-ball.
The Jilleroos marched easily up field, and only a try-saving tackle on the line by Raecine McGragor stopped them scoring within the first couple of minutes.
With a repeat set, they were then held up over the line, in a promising defensive period by the Ferns.
But there was a price - paid by Kiwi captain and hooker Krystal Rota who needed treatment to her forearm.
Australia had all pressure, in the opening 10, playing the game almost entirely in the Ferns’ home 20m zone.
But after a few relieving penalties and strong run, New Zealand had their turn to put pressure on the Australian line in the second 10 minutes. With the scoreboard untroubled after 16 minutes, Australia crossed the Kiwi line and called on the video ref, but Ali Brigginshaw lost the ball as she tried to ground it while dealing with the attention of three defenders.
After 20 minutes, though, Tarryn Aiken span out of the grip of two New Zealand defenders for Australia’s first score. Brigginshaw stepped up to kick the conversion and the Jilleroos led 6-0
But Aiken promptly knocked on as she went to catch the Kiwis’ kick-off gifting the Ferns an attacking set on the Australian 10m which - fortunately for the Green and Golds – came to nothing.
The Ferns promptly returned the favour, fumbling an Australian grubber just metres out from their goal-line, but snuffed out the threat with powerful defence once more.
On the half-hour Raecine McGregor aimed an exquisite kick at the pads for fullback Apii Nicholls to pounce on and score. Unfortunately Brianna Clark’s conversion kick was as accurate in hitting the post as McGregor’s effort had been.
The Ferns now trailed 6-4.
Play moved from end to end for the rest of the half, with both teams applying pressure, though the Jilleroos had most of the possession and territory - but also most errors.
And when they lost the ball on their own 10m line, with one minute to go New Zealand had their chance to take the lead, until they knocked on themselves in attack just seconds before the hooter.
When the second half started, the Ferns repeated the Jilleroos’ first-half error and knocked on fielding the kick-off, but recovered to hold up the Australians’ attack in goal. The Kiwi defence dominated play for the next 10 minutes, with the match stats for the first 50 minutes of the game showing that they’d prevented the Jilleroos completing their set 10 times to date.
Their own attack, on the other hand, were guilty of only three incomplete sets.
And then Male Hafunga stole the ball in a one-on-one tackle and raced 40m before being tackled herself with no supporting player available. On the next play, the ball was moved the ball across the width of the field to left-winger Autumn-Rains Stephens-Daily in space who crossed to score in the corner.
Again, though, Clark missed the conversion. But the Ferns now led 6-8.
The bad news for New Zealand, though, was that iconic half-back Raecine McGregor required treatment again before being able to continue.
And when Australia won a repeat set on the Kiwi line with 60 minutes gone, Julia Robinson received the ball on the right touchline and ran in to ground it in the the corner. The conversion was missed, but the Jilleroos had retaken the lead at 10-8.
The Green and Golds pressed again just minutes later but the Ferns’ goal-line defence held firm, with a try-saving tackle by Amber Hall a particular stand-out. On the other hand, they were finding it difficult to make metres in possession, rarely getting out of their own half.
With three minutes left to play, New Zealand made a successful captain’s challenge to win a penalty for Australian ruck interference, but ran out of ground and moves as the set came to its end under the Jilleroos’ posts.
Their next possession ended after two tackles in front of their own posts as the final hooter sounded.
New Zealand will now play England in Monday’s semi, while Australia take on Papua New Guinea. And on tonight’s performances, opponents must think they have a good chance of appearing in the Old Trafford final next Saturday.
Australia: Bremner; Robinson (T), Sergis, Kelly, Chapman; Aiken (T), Brigginshaw (G); Mato, Davis, Johnston, Apps, Clydsdale, Taufa. Subs: Cherrington, Bent, Brown, Tonegato.
New Zealand: Nicholls (T); Stephens-Daly (T), Hufanga, P McGregor, Vaha’akolo; Roache, R McGregor; Clark, Rota, Nu’uausala, Murdoch-Masala, Hale. Subs: Maynard, Hill-Moana, Pule, Stowers.
Full Time: 10-8
Half Time: 6-4
Score Progression: 4-0, 6-0, 6-4, HT. 6-8, 10-8. FT.
Lead: Australia, New Zealand, Australia
Referee: Todd Smith
Venue: LNER Community Stadium, York