The Australian Jillaroos overcame a determined New Zealand Ferns, to win 10-8 in a thrilling Round 3 contest between two powerhouses of rugby league.
The defending champions' experience was tested on Friday morning (AEDT) in York but Brad Donald's side hung on for the 80 minutes to finish top of their Pool ahead of next week's semi-finals.
The Jillaroos conceded their first points of the tournament to their Trans-Tasman rivals, with prop Amber Hall and halfback Raecene McGregor leading a brave Ferns outfit to stake their claim as World Cup Final contenders.
It was the Jillaroos who kicked off proceedings, after a closely contested opening, when a Simaima Taufa offload put five-eighth Tarryn Aiken in close range to weave her way through the Kiwis' defence and crash over the stripe.
Aiken on the spot
Ali Brigginshaw made no mistake with the boot and a successful conversion saw the favourites lead 6-0 21 minutes into the opening half.
But four minutes later Kiwi halfback Raecene McGregor's kicking came to the fore when a perfectly weighted grubber was collected by Titans star Apii Nicholls to hand New Zealand their first points of the match.
McGregor and Nicholls combine
The Ferns had the perfect opportunity to level the scores before half time but after Brianna Clark hooked the conversion from in front, the Jillaroos led by two points at the break.
After another seesawing start to the second half, New Zealand stole the lead in the 54th minute with centre Autumn-Rain Stephens-Daly on the end of a Ferns left side raid.
It all came after an incredible one-on-one steal from rugby union convert Mele Hufanga, who stripped the ball from Sam Bremner and ran 50 metres upfield to hand her Ferns field position. Another missed conversion by Clark left the Kiwis hanging on to just a two-point lead.
But the Jillaroos, trailing for the first time in the tournament, were quick to strike back. Some slick hands saw Brad Donald's side send the ball down the left side and Julia Robinson crossed the line for her sixth try of the tournament to steal back the two-point lead.
Another try was looking inevitable for the Jillaroos when Shaylee Bent was charging towards the line but Ferns prop Amber Hall produced an incredible try-saving tackle in the 66th minute, crediting New Zealand's desperation in defence.
However, the Jillaroos held on to their lead until the full-time siren and will head into next week's semi-final clash against Papua New Guinea undefeated.
Amber Hall the wrecking ball
- The opening minutes of the match saw the Ferns hold out the defending premiers for three consecutive sets.
- Jillaroos halfback Ali Brigginshaw knocked the ball over the line in the 16th minute in what would have been the opening try of the match.
- The first half saw two powerhouse forwards go head-to-head, with Jilaroos' Simaima Taufa and New Zealand's Georgia Hale both topping tackles and run metres at the break.
- Despite Australia leading in possession, New Zealand's completion rate at half time was at 88 per cent compared to the Jillaroos 60.
- Sydney Roosters stars Isabelle Kelly and Sam Bremner were immense for their side, both running over 160 metres with the ball.
- Taufa and Yasmin Clydesdale made 83 tackles between them for Australia.
- Errors proved costly for the Jillaroos, finishing the match with 16 while New Zealand had seven.
- New Zealand prop Amber Hall was awarded player-of-the-match. The star forward finished the match with 164 run metres and 11 tackle breaks.
- When the two teams went head-to-head in the 2017 World Cup final it was Australia who came out on top, 23-16.
- 3,370 fans turned up to watch the Trans-Tasman clash at LNER Community Stadium in York.
Match: Australia v New Zealand
Round 3 -
Venue: LNER Community Stadium, York
Play of the Game
In just her second World Cup match, it was Ferns winger Mele Hufanga who produced some superb solo plays for her side. When momentum was all the Jillaroos, the 28-year-old barnstorming back orchestrated an incredible one-on-one ball strip on Jillaroos fullback Sam Bremner. After charging 50 metres upfield, Hufanga didn't have the pace to go all the way, but two tackles after her break the Ferns found numbers on the left and Autumn-Rain Stephens-Daly finished off the memorable set with New Zealand's second try of the match.
Mele Hufanga gets the strip
What They Said
"We needed that game. We will get better from that. I think it could have gone either way. It was tough defensively, both teams were really chopping into each other tonight. I think the Kiwis will walk away a little bit disappointed but it was a really good game of footy. I think we panicked a little bit...the girls looked a bit daunted at the start just because they hadn't scored. Our attack was definitely a bit clunky with the pressure that the Kiwi defence put on us." - Jillaroos coach Brad Donald.
"It was tough out there and I thought I had to save one try after Tarryn (Aiken) got one up on me. Although we didn't get the win, I'm sure we can take a lot of lessons from this. We worked on our defence a lot more and stuck to our game plan. After tonight, I think us Ferns can take a lot of confidence into next week" - Player-of-the-match Amber Hall.
Both the Jillaroos and Ferns had already booked their semi-final tickets, having won their previous pool matches. Friday's result will see New Zealand take on England and the Jillaroos meet with Papua New Guinea. The do-or-die matches will take place at LNER Community Stadium in York on Tuesday November 15.