Wales’ excruciating agony against the southern hemisphere heavyweights continued in Cardiff as they suffered a tenth successive loss to 2015 World Cup pool opponents Australia.
The Wallabies’ victory means Wales have now gone 21 Tests in a row without beating Australia, New Zealand or South Africa, which hardly augurs well for a tilt at global glory next autumn.
First-half tries by Israel Folau (two) and Tevita Kuridrani sent Australia on their way, although they were matched blow for blow during a madcap opening period when Wales claimed touchdowns from scrum-half Rhys Webb, wing Alex Cuthbert and lock Alun-Wyn Jones, making it 21-21 at the break.
A 64th-minute penalty try then edged Wales back in front, but Wallabies fly-half Bernard Foley added a late drop goal and penalty to give him 18 points – he earlier booted three conversions and two previous penalties – to leave the home side crestfallen. Wales’ four successful conversions were shared by three players – full-back Leigh Halfpenny (two), fly-half Dan Biggar and replacement Rhys Priestland – but, again, it was not to be.
There was also a double injury concern for Wales as Halfpenny went off 10 minutes before half-time and Biggar limped out ahead of remaining autumn appointments with Fiji, world champions New Zealand and South Africa.
Wales stunned Australia with a third-minute try, Webb foxing Australia’s defence with a neat dummy to enjoy an unopposed run to the line. Halfpenny added the conversion, but Australia quickly found their rhythm and prospered from quick possession as skipper Michael Hooper smashed through Biggar’s tackle and set up Folau for his 16th try in 26 Tests, with Foley converting.
There was more to come from Folau, who scored Australia’s second try midway through a frenetic first half when he intercepted Webb’s pass, intended for wing Liam Williams, and sprinted 80 metres to claim a gift touchdown that Foley converted.
Wales could have gone into their shell after such a quickfire double setback, yet they produced an exhilarating response and were level within four minutes after George North broke clear from 60 metres and sent Cuthbert in for the fourth touchdown of a lung-busting tussle.
Halfpenny’s conversion tied things up, but back came Australia with another soft try from Wales’ perspective as Kuridrani bisected a weak joint effort from Jones and Cuthbert to touch down between the posts, with Foley again converting.
Wales’ defence has been a strong point throughout much of head coach Warren Gatland’s reign, but on this occasion Australia seemed capable of scoring every time they got within sight of the Welsh line.
Halfpenny was hurt in the build-up to Australia’s third score, appearing to be concussed, with Cardiff Blues centre Cory Allen taking over from him, which meant North reverting to the wing from his centre starting position and Lloyd Williams filling in at full-back.
Wales drew level again during first-half injury time when Jones emerged from under a forward rush to claim the touchdown before Biggar’s conversion made it 21-21. A 43rd-minute Foley penalty edged Australia ahead before Biggar limped off with a suspected groin problem, Scarlets fly-half Priestland replacing him.
A further Foley penalty stretched Australia’s advantage, but Wales upped the ante through their forwards as Gatland sent on prop Gethin Jenkins and hooker Scott Baldwin. Australia could not cope with a series of scrums in the shadow of their own posts, and referee Craig Joubert awarded a penalty try when the Wallabies collapsed one scrum too many, with Priestland’s conversion edging Wales back in front.
But Foley then dropped a goal with seven minutes left and added another penalty as Australia successfully wound down the clock to claim yet another close-fought triumph at Wales’ expense.
Scorers: Wales: Tries: Webb, Cuthbert, A. Jones, penalty try. Cons: Halfpenny 2, Biggar, Priestland; Australia: Tries: Folau 2, Kuridrani. Cons: Foley 3. Pens: Foley 3.
Wales: Halfpenny; Cuthbert, North, Roberts, L. Williams; Biggar, Webb; James, Hibbard, Lee, Ball, A. Jones, Lydiate, Warburton, Faletau. Subs: Baldwin, Jenkins, R. Jones, B. Davies, Tipuric, Phillips, Priestland, Allen.
Australia: Folau; Ashley-Cooper, Kuridrani, LealiIfano, Tomane; Foley, Phipps; Slipper, Faingaa, Kepu, Carter, Simmons, McMahon, Hooper, McCalman. Subs: Hanson, Faulkner, Alexander, Horwill, Skelton, Hodgson, Genia, Horne.
Referee: C Joubert (South Africa).