The north may have closed the gap, yet the big three southern-hemisphere teams keep finding ways of pulling victories from their sleeves. Barely two hours after Ireland had been sunk in Christchurch by a last-minute drop-goal from the All Black fly-half Dan Carter, Australia left it even later to break Welsh hearts. The siren had signalled that 80 minutes were up when the Etihad Stadium held its breath. Mike Harris, with the final kick of the game, guided a penalty through the posts to settle a thrilling contest and, with it, the three-match Test series.
If next year's British and Irish Lions tour here serves up similar drama, it will be well worth following. This defeat was dramatic, agonising and possibly undeserved for Wales, who believed they were on the brink of ending a 43-year wait for a victory over the Wallabies Down Under.
As Australia's pack called in their three-quarters to mount one final drive from a line-out, Richard Hibbard, Wales's replacement hooker, was penalised for dragging down the maul. That handed another substitute, Harris, the opportunity to win the match.
The Wales captain, Sam Warburton, struggled to describe the sorrow within his ranks. He managed to say: "I'm speechless. It's so demoralising to come so close. When a team gets momentum at a line-out, it's difficult to stop. But I'm just gutted. It was very physical but we have shown character all season. It was about getting a vital win out here and we're not going to get closer than that."
Wales had clearly learned the lessons of their 27-19 defeat in the First Test in Brisbane and they turned the tables on Australia, who had started quickly the week before, as George North and Jonathan Davies scored tries inside the first four minutes of either half. Their full-back, Leigh Halfpenny, produced another perfect goal-kicking display.
This time, it was the final moments of both halves that cost Wales dearly. Leading 7-6, the tourists allowed the Wallaby fly-half, Berwick Barnes, to slip through and set up a try for the centre Rob Horne on the stroke of half-time. They then failed, in the closing stages of the game, to show the kind of composure that clinched a Six Nations Grand Slam in the spring.
Wales had possession with less than two minutes left and had only to stick the ball up their jerseys and grind out the clock. But an aimless kick upfield by the fly-half, Rhys Priestland, and the concession of two penalties in quick succession allowed victory to slip through their grasp. They will have a third chance to get a win, in Sydney next Saturday, but the series has gone.
Wales's caretaker coach, Rob Howley, said: "International rugby is about fine lines. For 79 minutes and 30 seconds we did a lot right but this is our own fault for giving away silly penalties. We played well but composure, game-management and discipline at key moments costs us dearly."
That was an understatement. North gave Wales the perfect start, barging over inside three minutes from close range, and Halfpenny converted. But Barnes, who had dashed to and from Sydney to attend the birth of his first child the previous night, kicked two penalties before showing Warburton a clean pair of heels to set-up Horne's try.
Wales turned defence into attack to strike back after the break. Ashley Beck pounced on a rare mistake by Will Genia and Davies held his nerve to kick through and score.
Australia were reduced to 14 men when Cooper Vuna was shown a yellow card for upending Halfpenny, who dusted himself off to kick one of a series of penalties exchanged with Barnes. Vuna was later cited for the challenge. The lead swapped hands six times in a topsy-turvy second half, and an injured Barnes scuffed a penalty seven minutes from time to leave Wales eyeing a piece of history. It was not to be.
Australia: A Ashley-Cooper (New South Wales Waratahs); C Vuna (Melbourne Rebels), R Horne (Waratahs), P McCabe (ACT Brumbies), D Ioane (Queensland Reds); B Barnes (Waratahs), W Genia (Reds); B Robinson, T Polota Nau, S Kepu (all Waratahs), R Simmons (Reds), N Sharpe (Western Force), S Higginbotham (Reds), W Palu (Waratahs), D Pocock (Force, capt). Replacements: S Moore (Brumbies) for Polota Nau, 51; D Dennis (Waratahs) for Palu, 54; B Alexander (Brumbies) for Robinson, 65; M Hooper (Brumbies) for Simmons, 69; A Fainga'a (Reds) for Vuna, 69; M Harris (Reds) for Horne, 74.
Wales: L Halfpenny; A Cuthbert (both Cardiff Blues), J Davies (Scarlets), A Beck (Ospreys), G North; R Priestland (both Scarlets), M Phillips (Bayonne); G Jenkins (Blues), M Rees (Scarlets), A Jones (Ospreys), B Davies (Blues), A W Jones (Ospreys), D Lydiate (Newport Gwent Dragons), R Jones (Ospreys), S Warburton (capt, Cardiff Blues). Replacements: R Webb (Ospreys) for Phillips, 65; R Hibbard (Ospreys) for Rees, 67; L Charteris (Dragons) for A W Jones, 67.
Referee: C Pollock (New Zealand).