New Zealand were on the verge of a World Cup boilover, before a costly double blunder from Brandon Smith allowed Cameron Murray to pounce.
Player of the match Liam Martin inspired his team with a brutal display of defence in an epic battle with Panthers teammate James Fisher-Harris as Australia held on in a thriller.
Read on for the Big Hits from Australia’s World Cup semi-final win over New Zealand.
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The FLYING FOXX scores an absurd try | 00:44
SMITH’S DOUBLE BLUNDER COSTS KIWIS
Rugby league can be a cruel game because Brandon Smith bases his whole game on effort, but with New Zealand in the lead he came up with a costly double blunder that turned the match on its head.
New Zealand led 14-10, before Smith was penalised for laying in the ruck and off the tap he was caught on his heels in defence allowing Cameron Murray to score beside the posts.
Cooper Cronk believes New Zealand had the game in control, but were ultimately made to pay for absorbing so much pressure from the Australians in their half.
“They basically had the game in the grasp of their hands with the try to Dylan Brown,” Cronk said.
“But defence and a couple of errors in the second half and they couldn’t get out of their own end and ultimately the wall crashed when Cameron Murray scored.”
Bryan Fletcher noted how distraught Smith was post match and believes it was due to his costly two blunders in the lead-up to Murray’s try.
“We saw some vision of Brandon Smith at the end of the game and he was pretty distraught,” Fletcher said.
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“When he looks back at it, I think he got pinched for laying in the ruck and then he missed the tackle on Murray and he would think that was a bit of a disappointing moment.”
A long-time teammate of Smith’s, Cronk knows how much those two plays will burn the Roosters recruit and believes it effectively cost New Zealand the win.
“For a guy that fights over a loose bit of bone on the ground each and every game, if you go back and watch what Brandon Smith did or the lack of work he did for that Cameron Murray try, I think it is going to hurt him for a long time,” Cronk said.
“Right there Smith just didn’t get off the line at all. Brandon Smith for a guy that moves and accelerates in every play he was just caught on his heels.
“He was resting. He was playing for long minutes and he was tired and he basically just cost the game a little bit there because Cameron Murray just went through where he should have been standing.”
New Zealand coach Michael Maguire also thought his team had the game won, but believes they will rue some costly missed opportunities.
“There is a fair bit of emotion at the moment,” Maguire said.
“Moments in games, they win you Test matches and unfortunately we just didn’t capitalise on a couple of them there where we actually had it.
“We just couldn’t mage it. I have so much belief in our players and we had it in either of the corners and what could have been, but unfortunately tonight for us it just wasn’t to be.”
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Smith, Grant share nice haka moment | 01:20
MARTIN SHINES IN EPIC DEFENSIVE BATTLE WITH PANTHERS TEAMMATES
There has been some conjecture about Liam Martin’s place in the Kangaroos’ side, but he put that to bed in an inspiring defensive display to be named man-of-the-match.
Martin finished with 75 metres and a linebreak, but it was his equal game high 35 tackles with Isaah Yeo that helped Australia hold on in a nailbiter.
Martin made it personal with an brutal battle with Penrith teammates James Fisher-Harris and Moses Leota.
“75 metres with the ball, but it was what he did in defence,” Yvonne Sampson said.
“You would have to think that he and James Fisher-Harris, Penrith teammates and premiership winning buddies were keeping score out there.”
Cronk believes Martin stood up in defence and inspired his teammates to a comeback win when the game was on the line.
“There was no real standout player of the match, but I agree with him being player of the match because when the game was in the balance he was the one that took it upon himself and went after one of his teammates at Penrith,” Cronk said.
“He was physical and just unrelenting going forward and a couple of those big shots got the ball back for Australia and gave them field position for Murray to score.
“It was a great moment for Liam Martin who just basically put the game on the back of his shoulders and went after his opposition.”
Fletcher believes it was a forward dominated contest and Martin took the game by the scruff of the neck.
“Martin inspired his teammates,” Fletcher said.
“I thought Tino Fa’asuamaleaui as well when he came on added a bit of spark to them.
“They seemed to be off-side or their line speed was phenomenal because there was no room for the halves to do anything and they were kicking out of their own halves.
“It was just basically a forward battle and well done to Liam Martin.”
Kangaroos coach Mal Meninga commended his players for showing the fighting spirit in an epic Test match.
“It was fantastic, that’s Test match football,” Meninga said.
“International rugby league it is good to have it back. We had to fight hard.
“New Zealand threw everything bar the kitchen sink at us and I thought we handled it really well.
“We created plenty of opportunities and so did they. It came down to scrambling defence, desperation and commitment.
“All those characteristics you want in Test match footy came out tonight.
“I thought New Zealand were very good. They fought back a couple of times and we fought back. It was just really good Test match rugby league. We have been missing it for three years and I am just glad tonight we are on the winning side of it all.”
Cronk commended both teams for their tireless displays in an instant classic Test match.
“It is a throwback to the day’s Mal was a player because it is old Test match footy,” Cronk said.
“It was tough. It was physical. It was about hanging in there for long periods of time.
“Look at the highlights, the tries were exceptional.”
MURRAY AND WIGHTON SHINE IN COMEBACK WIN
There have been a fair few critics of the decision to bench Cameron Murray, but his fresh legs in the second half proved the difference in Australia’s comeback win.
Murray finished with 54 metres, three tackle busts, a linebreak and 17 tackles, but it was his opportunists try that won Australia the game.
Cronk believes neither team was giving an inch, before Murray pounced on some sloppy defending to score the only try of the second half that proved the match winner.
“It was a tough performance and it was really physical,” Cronk said.
“It has been a long year for the players, but they threw everything at one another, particularly in that second half.
“Ultimately the difference was the Cameron Murray try. he saw an opportunity and accelerated and scored under the posts.
“At that stage New Zealand where winning 14-10 and that’s the difference 16-14.
“I thought Murray off the bench added a lot of impact.
“But both teams didn’t play their best. It was basically a couple of cage fighters just going hammer and tongs for 80 minutes.
“It came down to a couple of moments. The Jack Wighton flick pass for Valentine Holmes’ try and the Cameron Murray try.
“A couple of class plays from the Australians got them the win.”
Cronk also paid tribute to Jack Wighton’s performance at centre after he was involved in some crucial plays.
“I though Wighton’s try assist for Holmes was exceptional,” Cronk said.
“Big right foot step and flick pass off the deck for Valentine Holmes.
I thought Jack Wighton was great.”
Wighton finished with 106 metres, a tackle bust, three linebreak assists, a try assist and 15 tackles in a complete performance.
Fletcher believes Australia’s superior conditioning allowed them to stay in the fight and hold off a late charge form New Zealand.
“I thought the difference was our fitness,” Fletcher said.
“the fact that we were down there and had those three errors. The two errors where we just dropped it with no one around us, I thought that played into their hands, so it was an amazing effort to hold them out.”