The best player in the world made one of the worst errors imaginable in the World Cup final as New Zealand gloriously ended Australia's era of domination.
Australia had won every World Cup since 1975 and, despite being pushed hard by the Kiwis, were well placed for a late surge to win this one here in Brisbane on Saturday. But then Billy Slater, last week voted International Player of the Year, intercepted a kick with typical athleticism and tried to counter-attack audaciously down the touchline. That was his first miscalculation. His second was to hurl the ball back as he was carted out of play into the waiting arms of Benji Marshall, who turned a two-point lead into six.
Australia never recovered, but their coach, Ricky Stuart, refused to blame the swashbuckling full-back. "When you get the ball in your hands so many times there's going to be a mistake," he said of Slater's gamble. "If you took that out of his game, he wouldn't be the Billy Slater we all love. If you eliminated that from his game, you'd be losing a great footy player."
Stuart also refused – publicly, at any rate – to blame two decisions from the video referee, Steve Ganson, that had a crucial bearing on the result. One led to a contentious second Kiwi try being allowed, the other to the award of a rare penalty try at Test level.
The head of the tournament referees, Mick Stone, backed up Ganson's difficult decision-making. "It was the hardest game of the tournament to officiate on, but I couldn't say he got anything wrong," he said.
Within the confines of their own dressing room, Australia were not as convinced.
This should be a story not just about them losing, but about an unfancied Kiwi side winning their first World Cup against the odds. A year ago they were humiliated 3-0 in a Test series in England, with Gary Kemble losing his coaching job amid infighting. Stephen Kearney did not exactly seem to have turned things around when New Zealand trudged to a 30-6 defeat by Australia in the opening game of this tournament, but with the vastly experienced Wayne Bennett helping out they developed momentum as it went on.
Kearney was reluctant to pick out stars from a team which, in one sense, has no stars, but he got eye-catching performances out of Adam Blair, David Fa'alogo and Jeremy Smith in the pack, while Lance Hohaia at full-back was hugely effective."I just look at our defence," said Kearney. "We didn't have to score after half-time, but we couldn't let them score another."
Australia's captain, Darren Lockyer was magnificent and did not deserve to be on a losing side. In fits and starts, they showed how brilliant a back division they have but the Kiwis' relentless effort demanded 80 minutes of excellence to counter it. For once on the World Stage, Australia could not quite produce the goods.
Australia: Slater; Williams, Inglis, Folau, Monaghan; Lockyer, Thurston; Kite, C Smith, Civoniceva, Laffranchi, Stewart, Gallen. Substitutes: Hunt, Watmough, Fitzgibbon,Tupou.
New Zealand: Hohaia; Perrett, Mannering, Ropati, Vatuvei; Marshall, Fien; Cayless, Leuluai, Blair, Harrison, Fa'alogo, J Smith. Substitutes: Luke, Eastwood, Rapira, Manu.
Referee: A Klein (England).
Rugby League World Cup Team of the Tournament
1 Billy Slater (Australia)
2 Akuila Uate (Fiji)
3 Greg Inglis (Australia)
4 Jerome Ropati (New Zealand)
5 Damien Blanch (Ireland)
6 Darren Lockyer (Australia)
7 Nathan Fien (New Zealand)
8 Adam Blair (New Zealand)
9 Cameron Smith (Australia)
10 James Graham (England)
11 David Fa'alogo (New Zealand)
12 Ashton Sims (Fiji)
13 Jeremy Smith (New Zealand)
Substitutes: Stanley Gene (PNG), Isaac Luke (New Zealand), Gareth Haggerty (Ireland), Kylie LeuLuai (Samoa).