Veteran prop Heather Ballinger bowed out of Test football in triumph after inspiring the Jillaroos to their first win in New Zealand for 19 years with a 26-24 defeat of the Kiwi Ferns in another epic clash between the two nations at Mt Smart Stadium on Saturday.
Ballinger, who was a member of the Brisbane team which won the inaugural Holden NRL Women's Premiership, was named player of the match in her farewell Test for Australia as the Jillaroos overcome the loss of star St George Illawarra forward Kezie Apps just before halftime with a knee injury.
Jillaroos coach Brad Donald revealed that Ballinger had told teammates, who included five debutants after Dragons centre Jess Sergis was injured at training on Friday, how Australia had only beaten the Kiwi Ferns in New Zealand once in the third Test of the 1999 series.
"She got up and spoke about how we have only ever beaten the Kiwis once here in all the times we have been playing them and those memories from players like Heather Ballinger inspired the team," Jillaroos coach Brad Donald said.
"Shes been a mainstay of the team for a long time. She was wondering whether she should give it away [earlier] but to end with a Broncos premiership and to be player of the match in a trans-Tasman Test is just outstanding."
With the teams scoring five tries apiece, the goal kicking of fullback Chelsea Baker proved the difference but she missed her last two attempts and appeared to be affected by a groin injury.
Brisbane teammate Brittany Breayley, the 2018 Dally M Medal winner, was also forced to ignore the pain of a neck problem to continue in the dummy half role.
"We were leaning on a number of players," Donald said. "With Kezie getting injured we needed players like Steph Hancock to play nearly the whole second half. We were fortunate to spend some tome with the ADF earlier in the week and we spoke about mateship ... and showing up for each other."
The Kiwi Ferns were also hit hard by injuries and lost halfback Kimiora Nati, the inaugural Karyn Murphy Medal winner as player of the NRLW grand final, with a knee injury in the first half and co-captain Laura Mariu to a shoulder problem after the interval.
They also had to overcome a controversial refereeing decision but managed to fight back from a poor start to lead until five minutes from full-time when Sydney Roosters centre Isabelle Kelly scored her second try to snatch victory.
"The girls have come out of a premiership where they have only played 60 minutes so it was going to be tough. These girls are conditioned to only play 60 minutes and we spoke about it all week that it was going to come down to the last five or 10 minutes," Donald said.
"It was one hell of a game and one hell of a performance from both sides and hopefully showcased how good women's rugby league is good at the moment."
Newly appointed Jillaroos captain Ali Brigginshaw, who took over the role after first choice Sam Bremner succumbed to a toe injury, led the way for her team in the early stages by laying on a try for Brisbane teammate Julie Robinson in just the sixth minute of her Test debut.
Brigginshaw then scored herself eight minutes later after stepping her way over the try line to put the Jillaroos ahead 12-0.
The first sign of the fightback from the Kiwi Ferns came in the 22nd minute when St George Illawarra star Honey Hireme raced down the sideline and hurled a pass inside but the touch judge incorrectly ruled she had put a foot into touch.
With Hireme having raised the crowd to their feet with her run, there were howls of protest when the incident was replayed on the big screen but the decision could not be overturned and a chance went begging for the Kiwi Ferns.
However, the home team got on the scoreboard soon after when Dragons playmaker Raecene McGregor put winger Langi Veainu over for the first of her two tries with a cut-out pass in the 30th minute.
Despite the loss of Nati just before half-time, the Kiwi Ferns continued to build momentum after half-time and they scored their second try in the 44th minute when Annetta Nuuausala crashed over.
"Kimi obviously plays a massive role in our team and obviously through her performances in the NRLW everyone would have seen that," Kiwi Ferns coach Kelvin Wright said. "But I thought Raecene McGregor really stepped up and got her hands on the footy a lot.
"We were really happy at half-time considering the amount of ball that they had that they had only scored two tries so we were confident if we got our fair share of ball that we would worry them and that happened a lot."
Fullback Api Nichols again missed the shot at goal but put her side ahead for the first time in the match when she regathered a kick from McGregor to put Veanu over for her second try and converted in the 47th minute.
The Jillaroos hit back almost immediately when Sydney Roosters second-rower Tazmin Gray, the sister of Kiwis and Canberra winger Jordan Rapana, managed to force the ball over the try line in the 51st minute.
Match: Kiwi Ferns v Australian Jillaroos
Round 1 -
Venue: Mt Smart Stadium
The Kiwi Ferns lost Mariu in the 55th minute but managed to level the scores in the following set of tackles when Brisbane forward Teuila Fotu-Moala sent centre Maitua Feterika racing for the tryline.
The teams continued to trade tries, with Kelly running 70 metres to score for the Jillaroos in the 56th minute after skipping out of dummy half and fending off an attempted tackle by Nita Maynard.
With Baker missing the conversion, Warriors prop Amber Kani appeared to have snatched victory when she used late footwork near the tryline to score in the 70th minuite but Kelly ensured the Jillaroos maintained their recent domination over the Kiwi Ferns when she finished off a backline movement five minutes before full-time.