A journey that started in the shire three weeks ago has ended in Brisbane – with the Jillaroos as world champions.
Australia retained the women’s rugby league World Cup after downing New Zealand 23-16 at Suncorp Stadium on Saturday night.
The Jillaroos, who downed New Zealand in the 2013 final, overcame a poor first half performance to add to their title from four years ago.
It was heartbreak for Cronulla local Maddie Studdon and Cronulla Sharks back-rower Talesha Quinn who were left out of Jillaroos coach Brad Donald’s squad for the final, though there was room for Sharks star Corban McGregor in the centres and veteran Ruan Sims on the bench.
Australia took the lead in the eighth minute when Isabelle Kelly finished off a slick left side move involving Nakia Davis-Welsh – who kept her place at fullback after Sam Bremner was again ruled out – and Jillaroos captain Renae Kunst.
But the Kiwi Ferns hit back just four minutes later when winger Honey Hireme scored from a pin point Raecene McGregor cut out pass.
New Zealand hit the front after 20 minutes when Hireme crossed for her second from a slick scrum play close to Australia’s line.
Australia’s dismal completion rate – just 67 per cent in the first half – saw the Jillaroos struggle to get a foothold in the match until four minutes before half-time when they regained the lead.
Caitlin Moran’s solo effort and subsequent conversion gave Australia a 12-10 lead at the break.
The luck then went Australia’s way 10 minutes into the second half. Jillaroos five-eighth Ali Brigginshaw appeared to knock on at dummy half under pressure from Cronulla Sharks player Nita Maynard. But referee Adam Gee ruled Maynard had stripped the ball and awarded Australia a scrum.
As fortuitous as that was, Australia then went down the other end from the ensuing set. Brigginshaw had a grubber kick deflect kindly into the arms of Kelly who charged over for her second try of the final.
The Jillaroos then gave themselves some breathing room when unsung hero Elianna Walton barged over from close range to have Australia out to a 22-10 lead.
But New Zealand refused to die wondering.
A great run and offload from Krystal Murray allowed Raecene McGregor to score with 11 minutes remaining and – with Nati’s conversion – the Kiwi Ferns were back within six points.
They could have been level from their next set, only for Shontelle Woodman to drop the ball short of the line after some desperate cover defence.
It got worse for Australia when they lost Davis-Welsh to what appeared to be a serious injury to her right ankle after she was trapped under a two-woman tackle. The Jillaroos No.1 lost possession in the tackle which gifted New Zealand the ball inside Australia’s 20 metre zone.
The Kiwi Ferns also received a penalty for a strip against Sims but the Jillaroos defence held firm.
Perhaps it was fitting that the final act of the tournament should be from Moran. The halfback, who starred in the preliminary rounds for Australia, slotted a field goal with 10 seconds remaining to seal the result – and secure the World Cup – for the Jillaroos.
Australia 23 (Isabelle Kelly two, Caitlin Moran, Elianna Walton tries. Caitlin Moran three goals, field goal)
New Zealand 16 (Honey Hireme two, Raecene McGregor tries. Kimiora Nati two goals)
at Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane