Australia is through to the final of the Rugby League World Cup after a modern day epic in their semi-final showdown with New Zealand in Leeds on Saturday morning.
The match was a rollercoaster thrill-ride as the lead change several times before New Zealand went agonisingly close to scoring a late winner in the final minutes.
Australia will count itself lucky it has survived the heated scrap and will face either England or Samoa in the final.
The difference between the two teams — and the 16-14 final score — ultimately came down to one moment where Kiwi Brandon Smith appeared to fall apart in the defensive line.
Australia snatched the lead back after a bizarre try to Cameron Murray in the 54th minute when Smith and Nelson Asofa-Solomona were cracked open while trying to defend their line.
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Panic appeared to be setting in for the reigning World Champions early in the second half as New Zealand began to dominate the contest.
However, a complete break down between the two New Zealand defenders changed everything.
Murray was passed the ball 10m out from the tryline following a penalty and was running a regulation hit-up when he inexplicably found a hole between Smith and Asofa-Solomona — and went on to score next to the post.
“The Kiwis are in disbelief,” Fox League commentator Andrew Voss said.
An English co-commentator said: “That’s not acceptable at this level. They’d be really unhappy with that one”.
Replays showed Smith was slow to get back to his feet and join the defensive line after giving away a penalty for slowing down the previous tackle. He was barely moving when Murray darted towards him.
Smith took himself off the field several minutes later.
Kangaroos legend Cooper Cronk was also scathing of Smith’s missed tackle.
“For a guy that fights over a bone like Smith, if you go back over what he did for that Murray try, I think it’s going to hurt him for a long time,” Cronk told Fox League.
“He just didn’t get off the line at all, and Brandon Smith for a guy that moves and accelerates in every play, he’s just caught on his heels. He was resting. He had been playing long minutes, and he was tired.
“And he basically just cost them the game a little bit there because Cam Murray just went right through where he should have been standing.”
NRL great Brian Fletcher also said: “I think Brandon Smith, he was pretty distraught and looking back at this I think he got pinged for lying in the ruck before that, I think he will think to himself that was quite disappointing”.
The match exploded early after New Zealand scored the opening try on the back of a freakish pass by Roosters star Joey Manu.
However, that moment of magic was trumped just a few minutes later when Josh Addo-Carr scored “one of the great rugby league tries”, according to Voss.
Addo-Carr left some commentators stunned as he latched onto a pin-point kick from Ben Hunt while showing off some mind-blowing speed to score in the 15th minute.
Addo-Carr’s try was his 12th try of the tournament, equalling the record for most scored at a single Rugby League World Cup. Valentine Holmes held the record by scoring 12 tries at the 2017 World Cup.
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Addo-Carr’s 12th try was the most special of the lot.
He sprinted almost 40m while Hunt’s kick was in the air and his speed appeared to unsettle Kiwi winger Jordan Rapana, who let the ball float over him and into the Bulldogs speedster’s hands.
“That is breathtaking,” Andrew Voss said.
“What have we just witnessed?”
Australia’s second try came from a nice piece of work by Jack Wighton who managed to toss out a brilliant offload to Holmes near the try line.
However, New Zealand clawed back in front when Dylan Brown scored in the 36th minute.
The panic was clearly settling in for Australia in the second half when a melee was triggered by a Nathan Cleary knock on.
Kiwi defender Isaiah Papali’i roared in Cleary’s face after the mistake and it triggered Cameron Murray to run in and shove the New Zealand forward. A penalty was awarded to New Zealand
Even though New Zealand didn’t need any more motivation, tournament organisers gave it to them anyway.
The Kiwis were such outsiders for the semi-final that Rugby League World Cup organisers booked the New Zealand team’s flight home — for the day after the semi-final.
It’s a move which has stunned the New Zealand side, who was pushed all the way against Fiji in the quarterfinal last week.