Wales suffered a 13th successive defeat against Australia as the Wallabies claimed a hard-fought victory in Cardiff.
First-half tries by forwards Tatafu Polota-Nau, Aidan Coleman and captain Michael Hooper underpinned Australia’s win as they warmed up impressively for a Twickenham appointment with England on Saturday before they head to Murrayfield the following weekend.
Wales had their moments in attack – wing Steff Evans scored an impressive try and substitute Hallam Amos claimed a late consolation score – but defensive hesitancy was punished by an Australian side high on confidence following their downing of New Zealand three weeks ago.
Full-back Kurtley Beale added a 62nd-minute breakaway try for the Wallabies, with fly-half Bernard Foley kicking three conversions and wing Reece Hodge booted a long-range penalty, while Wales full-back Leigh Halfpenny kicked three penalties and a conversion.
Alun-Wyn Jones admitted Wales had shot themselves in the foot in that first half. “We were confident going out there and I think that showed in the way we tried to play,” said the Welsh captain.
“We hurt ourselves a bit in the first half but hopefully people can see the positive way we’re trying to play.”
Australia made the initial running, dominating possession and territory, but Wales – without injured quartet Sam Warburton, Justin Tipuric, Rhys Webb and George North – Wales went ahead through a Halfpenny penalty on nine minutes.
Australia still looked more assured than their opponents with ball in hand and they opened their points account after wing Marika Koroibete ran powerfully from his own half. The visitors then took play to within striking distance of Wales’ line before relentlessly driving a lineout and Polota-Nau emerged with the ball from underneath his fellow forwards.
Foley converted, but Wales responded impressively when centre Jonathan Davies broke clear, then scrum-half Gareth Davies exploited space and the ball was moved at pace before Halfpenny delivered a final pass to Evans, who finished impressively on his home Test debut.
Halfpenny converted from the touchline, and Wales had scored more points inside the opening quarter then they managed in the whole game when Australia visited Cardiff 12 months ago. The lead, though, lasted barely five minutes.
For all of Evans’ attacking prowess, Australia looked to challenge him defensively, and he appeared out of position as Hodge almost grabbed Foley’s well-placed kick, and when Wales struggled to clear, the Wallabies recycled possession expertly and Coleman crashed over.
Foley’s conversion made it 14-10 before the less-heralded kicking expertise of Hodge took centre-stage as he landed a superb 45-metre penalty from wide out before Halfpenny cancelled it out from much shorter range.
Australia looked for another score as half-time approached, and it duly arrived when the Wallabies patiently built attacking phases and Wales ran out of defensive numbers as Hooper touched down to secure a nine-point interval advantage.
Halfpenny opened the second-half scoring by completing his penalty hat-trick, but Wales conceded a fourth try after Evans, who was struggling after being on the receiving end of a hefty collision moments earlier, coughed up possession, and Beale picked it up before sprinting 60 metres unopposed to effectively end the contest.
Hooper collected a yellow card 12 minutes from time, and Gatland made four substitutions either side of the Wallabies captain’s departure, including a Wales debut for Ospreys centre Owen Watkin.
Further new caps arrived off the bench in Dragons prop Leon Brown and Ospreys flanker Sam Cross, a sevens specialist who made just his third appearance of professional 15-a-side rugby, but Australia had done enough to seal the deal.