England will face New Zealand in the semi-finals of the women’s Rugby League World Cup after Australia edged a titanic tussle between the two southern hemisphere giants in York to top Group B.
The Jillaroos, the double defending champions who scored 166 points without reply in their first two games of the tournament, were pushed to the limit, with Julia Robinson’s second-half try edging a 10-8 win.
It means group winners Australia will face Papua New Guinea in the first part of Monday’s double-header back at the LNER Community Stadium, with the Kiwi Ferns taking on hosts England.
On this evidence it will prove a daunting prospect for Craig Richards’ side, with the Ferns, sprinkled with full-time NRL stars and underpinned by ferocious forward Amber Hall, sure to start as favourites.
They withstood some strong early pressure and came back firing, asking questions of the Jillaroos for the first time in the tournament and forcing errors through which they turned the momentum around.
Australia squeezed over on 17 minutes through Ali Brigginshaw but lost the ball before grounding.
Three minutes later they edged in front when Tarryn Aiken jinked over.
Brigginshaw’s conversion took the game to 6-0, but New Zealand continued to resist, and the favourites’ run of 172 unanswered points in the tournament came to an end on the half-hour when Apii Nicholls darted onto the end of Raecene McGregor’s clever kick to reduce the deficit.
An enthralling match stayed finely balanced until 15 minutes into the second half, when a breathless interception by Mele Hufanga sent New Zealand surging into the Jillaroos’ 20.
From the subsequent play-the-ball they swung the ball out to the left where Autumn-Rain Stephens-Daly stole over in the corner to give New Zealand an improbable 8-6 advantage.
A topsy-turvy game swung back in Australia’s favour when Robinson crossed for what ultimately proved the decisive score, her side withstanding more late pressure – of which the irrepressible Hall was at the centre – to keep their six-year winning run just about intact.