They have broken the mould in rugby league in the southern hemisphere, with New Zealand winning their first World Cup against all expectations and Australia giving up the trophy they had monopolised since 1975.
A fascinating final in front of over 50,000 in Brisbane hung on three decisions. The first was a brain explosion on the hour to give the Kiwis their crucial try, with Billy Slater, named this week as the best player in the world, the unfortunate culprit. The others were difficult calls for the English video referee, Steve Ganson, which both went New Zealand's way.
None of that should detract from the Kiwis' victory, achieved by a side who looked almost as uninspired as England at the start of the tournament but who grew into the job.
In doing so, they completed a massive turnaround. It is only a year since they were thrashed 3-0 in a Test series in Britain, and only a month since they were obliterated 30-6 by Australia in the group stage of this competition. Worse than that, a team rated as 7-1 outsiders to upset the mighty Aussies were 10 points down in this match, and could have been more in arrears and to all intents and purposes out of contention.
Slater, so brilliant for most of this World Cup, was heavily involved in both early tries, making the break and supplying the pass for Darren Lockyer and then releasing David Williams. When Lockyer went over again, in pursuit of Johnathan Thurston's kick, it could have been all over, but Ganson ruled correctly that he had not touched down cleanlyand Lockyer had no complaints afterwards. "I know if I had scored that one it could have been a very different ball game," said the Australian captain, who was still man of the match despite leading a losing side.
Instead, New Zealand, supported by all the English fans with tickets for the final, began to claw their way back. The introduction of Isaac Luke at dummy-half saw him send Jeremy Smith over to get the Kiwis moving, and then came the first of Ganson's tough decisions. Benji Marshall was on the run when the ball popped out of his hands in Anthony Laffranchi's tackle, with David Fa'alogo picking up the loose ball and Jerome Ropati finishing. The try stood, with Ganson ruling the ball had been ripped out not knocked on, and the Kiwis were ahead.
The Aussies showed their class with a move in which Lockyer handled three times before scoring from Anthony Watmough's angled run. Surely now the world champions would settle into a rhythm, but the Kiwis stood up to them at the start of the second half and Lance Hohaia's try edged them back in front.
It was time for the one moment of a memorable season that Slater will want to forget. Fielding Nathan Fien's kick near his own corner flag, the compulsive risk-taker tried to take on the defence on the outside and, when he was being forced into touch, threw the ball blind into the grateful arms of Marshall. Slater's coach, Ricky Stuart, refused to blame the full-back for his gamble, saying that to rein him in would ruin his talent, but it was undeniably a turning point.
Another magnificent Australian try from Greg Inglis ushered in the next pivotal moment. Fien kicked for the in-goal, Joel Monaghan failed to gatherand blatantly obstructed the chasing Hohaia. That it was a foul was not in question, but Ganson went the whole hog and awarded a penalty try – an even greater rarity at this level than it is in domestic competition.
That was the end for Australia, who conceded a messy late try to Adam Blair to confirm that they were losing a final and losing to New Zealand in a World Cup, both for the first time.
That they were doing so was a tribute to the work done by the Kiwi coach, Stephan Kearney, and his Australian assistant, Wayne Bennett. "I'm still numb, but I'm so happy for the boys who have worked so hard throughout the World Cup," Kearney said. "Perhaps now we'll get a bit more respect at home." Respect is what they deserve– plus the gratitude of the whole game for giving the World Cup a compelling twist in the tale.
Australia: Slater; Williams, Inglis, Folau, Monaghan; Lockyer, Thurston; Kite, C Smith, Civoniceva, Laffranchi, Stewart, Gallen. Interchange: Hunt, Watmough, Fitzgibbon,Tupou.
New Zealand: Hohaia; Perrett, Mannering, Ropati, Vatuvei;Marshall, Fien; Cayless, Leuluai, Blair, Harrison, Fa'alogo, J Smith. Interchange: Luke, Eastwood, Rapira, Manu.
Referee: A Klein (England).
Tries (Australia): Lockyer (2), Williams, Inglis
Goals: Thurston (2)
Tries (New Zealand): Smith, Ropati, Hohaia, Marshall, Penalty try, Blair
Goals: Luke (3), Marshall (2)Reuse content