Australia snatch last-gasp win over Wales
An 80th minute try from Kurtley Beale consigned Wales to their seventh consecutive loss as they fell 16-12 to Australia at the Millenium Stadium.
Not only will the loss be heart-breaking for a Wales after a strong performance saw them poised to seal their first win over Australia in seven years, but it means they will drop out of the world’s top eight just before Monday’s draw for the next Rugby World Cup.
The match also ended on a sour note as Leigh Halfpenny required more than five minutes of treatment on the pitch before being stretchered off after sustaining an injury in attempting to defend in the build-up to Beale’s try.
But it will go down as yet another case of Wales falling at the final hurdle, as they also did three times in their summer tour to Australia, as they were left to rue a poor line-out and defensive errors as the Wallabies did what they do best and snatched the win at the death.
Things did not start well for the hosts as not only did Australia enjoy over 80 per cent of the early possession; they also prevented Wales from leaving their own half more than once in the first 15 minutes.
Beale, preferred on kicking duty to Berrick Barnes, failed to hand the visitors the early lead when he scooped a poor attempt at a kick well wide of the posts but it would not be the let off that sparked Wales into life.
Already battling for confidence, Rhys Priestland was lucky not receive another blow when he missed what should have been a straightforward tackle on Adam Ashley-Cooper, only to see the Australian winger’s final pass to Drew Mitchell (rightly) deemed forward.
Wales, having enjoyed next to no spirit in the first 15 minutes, were suddenly jolted into life after a moment of attacking flair from Alex Cuthbert saw him run the ball from his own line and into Australian territory before being scrambled into touch by Barnes.
In spite of that it was Australia who took the lead in the 16th minute, Beale belting a brutal kick from smack on the half-way line in between the posts and somewhere into the first few rows on the stands.
But determined to prove he could match anything the Wallabies had to throw at him, Halfpenny, on a 15-match losing streak coming into the clash, quickly levelled things up with a penalty of his own also from the half-way line.
Wales began to control things from there, Halfpenny landing another penalty before very nearly fashioning a try for his side; breaking down the centre of the pitch and putting a chip into open space only for Wycliff Palu to just touch the ball down over the try-line ahead of Toby Faletau.
Australia quietly withstood the pressure though and somehow Wales found themselves trailing heading into the interval after another two successful kicks from Beale was followed by a Halfpenny miss right on the stroke of half time.
Wales continued their positive passage of play after the break and returned with a series of attacking moves, often falling just one final pass short of taking the lead with a score.
The line-out in particular began to cost Wales in the second half as the game descended into a kicking exchange. Priestland, very much erring on the side of caution, got his side to within 10 metres of the try-line on a handful of occasions only to see the line-out break down and Australia steal the ball.
Halfpenny did re-discover his range, however, the hosts first levelling up the scores and then taking the lead after successfully penalty kicks in the 55th and 60th minutes.
Replacement Mike Harris took over kicking duties from Beale late in the second half but missed his only attempt on goal and denying Australia the opportunity to level the scores.
But with the clock inching towards the final whistle and just as it looked as though Wales had given up on putting the game to bed with a try, content instead to soak up the pressure and hold on for the win, Australia wielded the hammer and snuck the devastating win.
Wales finally won an attacking line-out with two minutes to go until full-time only to find themselves penaslied five minutes out from the line.
Australia ran the ball from their own half, Barnes breaking clean through the Welsh defensive line before Halfpenny somehow managed to scramble back and make a try-saving tackle.
That should have been in for Wales but their clearance kick was straight down the throat of replacement Digby Ioane and the Wallabies came again.
And this time they did find a way through; Ioane found Mitchell, who passed to Harris outside on the right wing. The Wallabies had numbers over and all Beale had to do, once he had received the ball from Harris, was not fall over.
Halfpenny sustained his injury in a tackle on Harris and, after seven minutes of silence from both teams and the crowd, was stretchered off and taken to hospital to assess the extent of the damage.
Sharpe may have missed the following conversion but his exemplary skippering of the team in a such a close match meant he ended his international career with the kind of dramatic win that has characterised his time with the Wallabies.
Wales, fourth in the Rugby World Cup just 12 months ago, now have two months to re-group before attempting to defend the Six Nations Grand Slam title which started their 2012 in such promising fashion.