The lead changed hands four times in an action-packed semi-final decorated by an enthralling cocktail of brutal hits mixed with skilful tries to satisfy the appetite of the purist.
The Kiwis, urged on the vast majority of the 28,113 crowd at Elland Road, looked the better side for long periods but were eventually edged out by the Kangaroos, who will take on England or Samoa at Old Trafford next Saturday looking for a ninth win in the last 10 World Cups.
Back to the scene of their shock 2005 Four Nations triumph, New Zealand threatened a repeat when they took an early lead through impressive half-back Jahrome Hughes and were 14-10 in front at half-time thanks to a spectacular effort from his half-back partner Dylan Brown.
Mal Meninga’s men were rattled for much of the first half but managed to edge back in front courtesy of Cameron Murray’s 54th-minute try and they had the game management to see out the victory.
New Zealand’s biggest threat came from full-back Joey Manu, who demonstrated his athleticism early on, reaching into the air to palm the ball back from Brown’s high kick for Hughes to score the opening try.
Jordan Rapana kicked the first of his three goals to make it 6-0 but it was level on 16 minutes when pacey winger Josh Addo-Carr raced onto Ben Hunt’s long kick downfield for his 12th try of the tournament, which equalled the record set by his team-mate Valentine Holmes in 2017.
A Rapana penalty nudged his side back in front but the Aussies went ahead for the first time on 29 minutes when centre Jack Wighton skipped past Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad and, when not fully held by Manu, had the presence of mind to get the ball out for Holmes to touch down at the corner.
The game was end to end and the lead changed hands for third time in the first half when fast hands released Ronaldo Mulitalo up the left wing and Brown was in support to finish off, Rapana’s third goal giving the Kiwis a 14-10 interval lead.
They thought they had extended their advantage early in the second half when centre Peta Hiku touched down but the try was ruled out for offside from Hughes’ kick and a momentary lapse in concentration by the Kiwis proved crucial as second rower Murray dived through a melee of defenders to score from a tapped penalty.
That knocked the wind out of the Kiwis’ sails and, as the play became scrappy, they were forced to to chase the game.
The crowd were brought to life with a break from the ever-prominent Manu and the excitement reached fever pitch when Hughes’ grubber kick to corner eluded Addo-Carr but Hiku was denied once more when slow-motion replays indicated a foot on the touchline.