Wallabies edge out Wales
Australia continued their dominant run over Wales with a sublime, exhausting 30-26 victory in the final Test of the year in Cardiff.
It could only ever be agonisingly close, such has been the nature of the battles between these two in recent times.
It came down to the simple matter of whether Wales were good enough to finally win. With territory and possession five minutes from the finish and only four points down, the chance was there and then destroyed.
In the end Australia found that extra gear. The acceleration in intensity after going 16-10 down was breathtaking - tries from Israel Folau and Joe Tomane flipping the match on it's head and leaving Wales to chase their way back in.
It was an absolute thriller; no question. Take your pick for a standout moment from a pre-Christmas treat littered with them served up under the roof of the Millennium Stadium.
Ireland's noble effort against New Zealand a week ago had seen them playing above their level, but this was a contest between two evenly-matched teams full of running and bruising force that surged and subsided one way and then the other. There is no love lost between Wales and Australia, that is for sure.
Perhaps it was the lack of scrums in the first half that resulted in such a high level of magnificent entertainment. It certainly meant that the absence of Adam Jones for Wales was not as dear as predicted.
The Wallabies were ruthless. Last week against Scotland chances slipped away and the scoreboard failed to reflect the gulf between the two teams but here, against a rival, they endlessly tore up Shaun Edwards' defensive system.
It was Wales though who struck first. North pounced on a rare lackadaisical mistake from Adam Ashley-Cooper to hack on and then finish in the left corner, sending the Millennium Stadium into raptures. It was an omen. It left you breathless.
Quade Cooper marked his 50th cap for Australia with a world-leading performance.
His reverse pass around the back will be his legacy, mimicked in backyards around the world on Sunday, and it came off twice - first for Christian Leali'ifano's equalising try and then creating a chance on a silver platter for Will Genia that the scrum-half left behind.
Leigh Halfpenny's boot faltered only once in the first half, a penalty pinging back off the post but his other two efforts were successful. Added to an attempt from Dan Biggar, Wales were 16-10 ahead.
Israel Folau though had other plans. First he was brilliantly denied in the far corner by Scott Williams with a try-saving tackle, with Biggar heading to the bin from the resulting ruck.
But despite monstrous tackles from first North and then Richard Hibbard, Folau cruelly bounced off Mike Phillips and powered through two more tacklers to snatch the try - standing over his victims with the air of a world champion boxer. By scoring he levelled Lote Tuqiri's Wallaby record of ten tries in a single Test year.
It sling-shotted the Wallabies into the lead following Leali'ifano's conversion, Australia up 17-16 at half-time.
There was to be no second half let up in intensity. Australia sniffed blood and pummeled the Welsh defensive front through breaks from Nick Cummins and Cooper to leave the home side scuttling backwards.
Leali'ifano added a penalty before Tomane added the Wallabies third try - following close consultation with the TMO over the final pass. It created a chorus of boos but the more alarming aspect for Wales were the 20 unanswered points added by Australia to put them in the driving seat.
Wales grew desperate, the next score all but deciding the result at 30-16 down. Liam Williams did his part by racing away down the left touchline, but the Wallabies prowess at the breakdown was too much as they scrambled to safety.
North though was not done. The Northampton wing flew through Scott Fardy's tackle attempt and then had the power to outmuscle Folau to go in under the posts and drag Wales back within seven points.
Driven by hope and that burning fire to finally put one over the Wallabies, Wales turned to their bench and their pack to suck away the wide channels for Australia.
Three points came after Ben Mowen's indiscretion at the breakdown as the oxygen disappeared ahead of another typically tight finish in this fixture.
Cooper's yellow card then gave Wales the impetus, the fly-half binned for an early tackle as the clock ticked away.
It came down to a tapped penalty for Wales in their own half, the length of the pitch to run in order to finally break that losing streak. It was a task too far, bringing a pulsating Test match to a close.
Make your predictions
Man of the Match: Quade Cooper's tribute was already written until he was harshly yellow carded. But he was so good that he still takes this award. Sensational throughout. George North a close second.
Moment of the Match: With a line-out in the Australian 22, Wales sought to deploy their famous 12-man maul but the execution was off and a huge chance wasted.
Villain of the Match: Despite the sin-binnings of Cooper and Biggar, there was nothing nasty here.
Tries: North 2
Cons: Halfpenny, Biggar
Pens: Halfpenny 2, Biggar, Priestland
Yellow Card: Biggar
Tries: Leali'ifano, Folau, Tomane
Cons: Leali'ifano 3
Pens: Leali'ifano 3
Wales: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Alex Cuthbert, 13 Owen Williams, 12 Scott Williams, 11 George North, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Mike Phillips, 8 Toby Faletau, 7 Sam Warburton (capt), 6 Dan Lydiate, 5 Ian Evans, 4 Alun-Wyn Jones, 3 Rhodri Jones, 2 Richard Hibbard, 1 Gethin Jenkins.
Replacements: 16 Ken Owens, 17 Ryan Bevington, 18 Samson Lee, 19 Ryan Jones, 20 Justin Tipuric, 21 Rhodri Williams, 22 Rhys Priestland, 23 Liam Williams.
Australia: 15 Israel Folau, 14 Joe Tomane, 13 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 12 Christian Leali'ifano, 11 Nick Cummins, 10 Quade Cooper, 9 Will Genia, 8 Ben Mowen (c), 7 Michael Hooper, 6 Scott Fardy, 5 James Horwill, 4 Rob Simmons, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Stephen Moore, 1 James Slipper.
Replacements: 16 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 17 Benn Robinson, 18 Ben Alexander, 19 Kane Douglas, 20 Dave Dennis, 21 Nic White, 22 Mike Harris, 23 Bernard Foley.
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Assistant referees: Alain Rolland, John Lacey (both Ireland)
by Ben Coles