As the match clock ticked into the red zone, with 80 minutes up, it was a perfect day for Wales, complete with their new starting lock Lou Reed. They were 12-9 up and on the cusp of their first win in seven matches. The trouble was the clock was still ticking and Australia had the ball.
Not only that; the Wallabies were about to not so much walk on the wild side as break on the blindside. With one last desperate thrust, their replacement lock Dave Dennis hared up the right touchline. As he did so, Wales’ full-back appeared as the last line of defence on the 22m line.
Leigh Halfpenny had been worth his weight in gold all afternoon, landing four out of five penalty attempts, sparking Wales back to attacking life and riding to the rescue with two text-book try-saving tackles. The scrum-capped number 15 managed to halt Dennis in his tracks but unfortunately for him and for Wales Kurtley Beale had stolen up on the inside.
As Halfpenny executed his crunching tackle and crashed to the turf, the Wallaby fly-half took the ball off Dennis and got Australia off the hook, diving over the whitewash unopposed. It was a cruel, cruel denouement.
The hymns and arias gave way to stunned silence. Halfpenny was stretchered from the field – a more noble vanquished warrior there never was. “He’s gone to hospital,” Wales’ head coach Warren Gatland reported later. “I don’t know what the problem is.”
The deflated Cardiff crowd were in no mood to raise a respectful cheer as the Wallabies bestowed the conversion duties on Nathan Sharpe, their retiring lock and captain for the day. The shaven-headed second rower was no Peter Brown. He employed the same toe-end technique as the former Scotland Number Eight cum lock cum captain but without the same end result.
His effort fell short, just like the heroic 81 minute effort by Halfpenny and an injury-ravaged Welsh side. A seventh successive defeat leaves the 2012 Grand Slammers outside the top eight in the IRB world rankings for Monday’s World Cup draw in London.
“We’re pretty gutted,” Gatland said. “Apart from the last minute I thought we played some outstanding rugby today. We put ourselves in a position where we should have won the game.”
Against the All Blacks the previous Saturday, Gatland’s men had never been in that position, losing three players to injury in the opening quarter - Bradley Davies after being plugged by Andrew Hore in the first minute. This time they got their injury blow in early, Ian Evans withdrawing from the starting XV on Friday night suffering from a knee problem. That left Reed to plug the second row gap left by the concussed Davies.
Wales struggled to get a grip at line-out time all afternoon but managed to regain some measure of their attacking mojo. That was clear from the 13 minute, when Rhys Priestland chose to run from behind his posts rather than kick for touch. The ball was shipped on via Jamie Roberts to Alex Cuthbert, who hared some 70m up the right before being lassoed around the legs by Berrick Barnes.
Beale opened the scoring with a penalty success at the other end soon after but the force was with Wales. When Nick Cummins strayed off his feet at a ruck, Halfpenny stepped up to level the scores in the 19 minute. The Cardiff Blues player followed up with trademark long-range penalty from inside his own half three minutes later and the Dragons had their noses in front and their tails up.
Not since the Grand Slam clincher against France here in March had Halfpenny tasted victory for club or country and the pocket rocket of a full-back exploded out of defence in the 25 minute, charging up the middle, chipping over Barnes and hacking the ball on across the Wallaby try-line. It was not clear at first sight whether Sam Warburton or Toby Faletau had managed to touch the ball down ahead of Wycliff Palu but the television match official ruled in favour of the Wallaby Number Eight.
Frustratingly, though, Wales kept transgressing at the breakdown, two further penalty successes by Beale furnishing Australia with a 9-6 half-time lead. The Wallabies might have stretched out in front had Halfpenny not made a try scoring tackle on Drew Mitchell eleven minutes into the second-half.
As it was, the Welsh full-back put his team on level terms three minutes later, landing a penalty from the Australian 10m line after replacement flanker Dave Dennis had been pinged for rising mid-scrum. On the hour mark Halfpenny hoofed Wales back in front, converting his fourth penalty after Sharpe smothered the ball at a ruck in the shadow of the Australian posts.
When Halfpenny nailed the breaking Barnes with a minute to go it seemed like the Welsh autumn of missed opportunities and fruitlessness was about to end with a winning flourish. Sadly, it was not to be