WELLINGTON (AFP) – New Zealand shattered Australia’s rugby league supremacy with an historic 22-18 victory in the Four Nations tournament final at Westpac stadium here Saturday.
The defending champion Kangaroos were left mesmerised by the Shaun Johnson-led running game as the Kiwis pulled off back-to-back wins over Australia for the first time in 61 years.
Johnson, the stand-out performer when New Zealand shocked Australia 30-12 in the opening game of the tournament four weeks ago, was again the architect of their victory and was again named man-of-the-match.
His elusive running set up Manu Vatuvei for his first try to give New Zealand an eight-point buffer at 14-6 at half-time, and when Australia closed within two points in the second half Johnson stunned the Kangaroo defence with a brilliant solo try.
The result was sweet revenge for New Zealand who were humbled 34-2 when they last met Australia in a decider – the World Cup final last year.
But this time there was no sign of the New Zealanders being underdogs as they recovered from giving Australia an early try by taking the lead midway through the first half and were never headed from there.
Coach Stephen Kearney said his side had set themselves a standard they would have to live up to.
“We’ve got a great young team and the future’s bright,” he said.
“Australia are going to keep coming back at us and the challenge is for us to keep improving.”
While Kearney praised Johnson and his partner in the halves Kieran Foran, he said it was the Kiwi forwards who set up the victory.
With the 10-time world champion Kangaroos suffering a rare finals defeat, captain Cameron Smith rated his side’s performance as “brave but unfortunately we came up against a better side.”
In a feisty opening, it was Australia who dominated. They were twice denied points when first Josh Mansour spilled the ball over the line and then Corey Parker was held up.
But it was only a matter of time before they would be rewarded and the break came from a Cooper Cronk kick in the 10th minute which New Zealand fumbled and Michael Jennings snapped up the loose ball for the try.
It was a signal for New Zealand to go to the interchange early and the injection of Greg Eastwood and Martin Taupau turned the game dramatically.
Captain Simon Mannering was no longer battling on his own as the reshaped Kiwi forward pack began to rampage up the middle.
Taupau put Shaun Kenny-Dowall through a gap to spark a 60-metre move that resulted in a try in the right corner to Jason Nightingale.
Deft footwork by Johnson, when he opted to run on a fifth tackle, saw him beat five defenders before a wide pass to Vatuvei put the giant wing over in the left corner.
With Johnson also landing three goals, New Zealand went to the break leading 14-6.