AUCKLAND, New Zealand (AP) — New Zealand rallied then held out a late Kangaroos comeback to beat Australia 26-24 in a rugby league upset on Saturday.
Joseph Manu and Brandon Smith scored tries on debut, and Esan Masters, who scored on debut in New Zealand’s previous test against England, also touched down during a second half in which the Kiwis outscored the Kangaroos 18-12 after trailing 12-8 at halftime.
Manu then made a try for Jordan Rapana which proved crucial in New Zealand’s first victory over Australia in their last six meetings.
The try gave New Zealand a 26-12 lead and it needed every point as Australia scored late tries through Felise Kaufusi and James Tedesco to slash the lead to two points with two minutes remaining. New Zealand was just able to hold on.
“The boys did an amazing job,” Kiwis first-time captain Dallin Watene-Zelezniak said. “They took it up for the crowd and our country and did our families proud.
“But we’re still building. It’s only a start. We’ve got a foundation now.”
Australia entered Saturday’s match as an overwhelming favorite, so much so that in the first between the teams in New Zealand in more than four years, Mt. Smart Stadium was less than half full. New Zealand was on a three-match losing streak in tests against all countries, and discouraged fans stayed away.
But the Kiwis fielded a strong side, including several players who featured in the Sydney Roosters win over Melbourne in last month’s National Rugby League grand final.
Australia, in contrast, is rebuilding after the retirements of veterans Billy Slater, Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk, and New Zealand took advantage of a leadership vacuum.
While New Zealand dominated possession and territory in the first half, Australia began and ended the spell with tries which gave it a lead at halftime. New Zealand pressured the Australian line for almost 25 minutes through the middle of the first half and came up with tries to Ken Maumalo and Manu which were both unconverted.
Valentine Holmes and Lattrell Mitchell were a dangerous attacking combination down the left-hand side and they created Australia’s first try, to Holmes, after only two minutes. They remained a threat throughout the match but wanted for opportunities.
In an influential period of play just before halftime, New Zealand had a try disallowed to Watene-Zelezniak and Australia immediately scored through Dane Gagai to lead at the break.
The Kiwis then seized control of the match at the start of the second half, breaking down the Australia defense to score tries through Smith, Marsters and Rapana. Smith had a second disallowed.
Australia’s late rally put the Kiwis under pressure but the were able to see off the threat.
“It was always going to be tough playing the Kiwis at home,” Australia captain Boyd Cordner said. “We didn’t give ourselves much chance but we stuck to it and it was a tight finish. Our ball control was pretty disappointing.”
Australia meets Tonga in Auckland next week while New Zealand faces a three-test series against England.
New Zealand 26 (Ken Maumalo, Joseph Manu, Brandon Smith, Esan Marsters, Jordan Rapana tries; Shaun Johnson 3 goals), Australia 24 (Valentine Holmes, Dane Gagai, Felise Kaufusi, James Tedesco tries; Valentine Holmes 4 goals). HT: 8-12.