CARDIFF -- Australia left it late to deliver yet another agonizing blow to Wales on Saturday, scoring a last-gasp try through Kurtley Beale in a thrilling 14-12 victory that condemned the Six Nations champions to a seventh straight loss.
Beale crashed over in the right corner with barely 20 seconds remaining to grab the only try of a test fraught with tension and provide a fitting send-off to Wallabies captain Nathan Sharpe, who ended his distinguished rugby career after a 116th and final match.
Welsh players slumped to the floor in dismay, with the result having deeper repercussions than just another defeat in a miserable autumn for the Welsh. The loss means Warren Gatland's side will drop humiliatingly out of the world's top eight and into the third band of seeded teams for Monday's pool draw for the 2015 World Cup.
"It's probably the hardest defeat I've had to take as a player," Wales captain Sam Warburton said. "It's demoralizing. It looked like today was the day we were going to do it."
Wales has been here before against the Wallabies. In their last seven meetings, Australia has won them all by single-figure margins -- in a three-match series in June, the Wallabies' combined margin of victory was 11 points.
"I don't what it is," Warburton said. "Maybe it's just composure at the end."
The Welsh, now without a victory in their last 16 encounters with the three southern hemisphere powers, should have seen this one out.
With less than 90 seconds left, they had a lineout five meters from Australia's line. Hooker Ken Owens even found his man but Wales contrived to lose possession and Australia counter-attacked.
A Wallaby turnover resulted in Rhys Priestland hacking the ball back downfield but it was the last time Wales would touch the ball as Mike Harris made the break, passed out wide to Dave Dennis, who slipped a ball inside for Beale to sprint to the line.
"It shows the true character of the team," said Beale, who kicked all the rest of Australia's points in first-half penalties. "What better way to finish the game for a great man like Nathan."
With referee Wayne Barnes signalling time was up, Sharpe was even afforded the luxury of taking the conversion from out wide. Unsurprisingly he came up short, but it didn't stop the lock producing a wide smile.
"It's the first time and I'd say it will be the last," said Sharpe, who was close to tears when he confronted the media after the match.
Australia's second-most capped player, after George Gregan, had to wait about five minutes to take the conversion while Wales fullback Leigh Halfpenny received treatment for what appeared to be a neck injury after colliding with Dennis. Halfpenny, the scorer of all Wales' points, was taken to a hospital to undergo scans on his neck.
Australia finished their end-of-season tour of Europe with a third straight narrow win, having edged out England 20-14 and Italy 22-19 over the previous two weekends. It was also its sixth victory over Wales in 14 months, a run beginning with a 21-18 win in the bronze medal match at last year's World Cup.
For the Welsh, it was fourth successive Saturday in which they have come away from Millennium Stadium with a defeat, after also losing to Argentina, Samoa and New Zealand. This one will be the hardest to take -- and not just because it will leave them with a tough World Cup pool in three years' time.
Showing more ambition than they had so far this autumn, Wales got the ball out wide at every chance and fronted up better in the forward battle.
Beale and Halfpenny traded two long-range penalties to leave the score at 6-6 after 27 minutes, with Wales coming closest to scoring a try when Halfpenny burst through a gap and kicked ahead, only for diving Wallaby No. 8 Wycliff Palu to ground in-goal ahead of Toby Faletau.
Beale knocked over a third penalty just before halftime but Wales' defence held firm at the start of the second half and responded with two penalties from Halfpenny in a five-minute span, taking a 12-9 lead with 19 minutes left.
Playing their 15th test of a tough 2012, the Wallabies appeared to have run out of steam, but they summoned up one last attack to leave the Welsh on their knees.
Australia 14 (Kurtley Beale try, 3 penalties), Wales 12 (Leigh Halfpenny 4 penalties). HT: 9-6.