Beale's try to savour as Wallabies down Wales
Australia's fly half Kurtley Beale scores a try in the final seconds. Photo: AFP
It was a climax of the grimmest vaudeville. Nathan Sharpe, Australia's departing captain, was shaping up to strike the final meaningless conversion, even though this giant lump of second-row bulk had most likely never taken a kick in his life. He smiled at the irony of it all, as tens of thousands of Wales supporters streamed down the stairwells and out into the Cardiff chill, desolate that their players' apparent march to victory should again be sabotaged by the assassins in gold and green.
A numb silence pervaded the Millennium Stadium, as the crowd digested the full grisly impact of Kurtley Beale's stunning last-minute try. It is as if some Antipodean hex hangs over this Wales side: in their last three Tests against Australia, they have lost by the cumulative total of five points.
None of the defeats was as agonising as this, though, as the atmosphere evaporated from the arena as rapidly as helium from a punctured balloon.
The turmoil of Welsh emotion could not be distilled easily. For 79 minutes and 31 seconds they had Australia under control, and even in the frenetic concluding phases it appeared that Leigh Halfpenny had made a match-saving tackle.
But in a late flurry the Australians spun the ball wide to release Beale, who dived over in the corner and silenced the triumphant home chorus with devastating finality.
Even the Herculean Halfpenny had to be taken from the field on a stretcher after his abortive tackle on replacement Dave Dennis. The challenge was uncomfortably reminiscent of the one with which he had hit David Strettle in the final act of Wales' last Six Nations victory over England. That, too, ended in the full-back being knocked out.
Halfpenny was in hospital last night: a harrowing postscript to one of his finest performances in the scarlet jersey. Supported by the effervescent Rhys Priestland, who despite recent criticism broke through the line at will, the 23 year-old had been instrumental in pinning Australia back until their last-gasp salvo.
Wales were looking more purposeful, more dangerous than they had all autumn.
So no wonder Sam Warburton called this the hardest, most demoralising loss he had ever suffered. "It felt like the day we were definitely going to do it," the captain reflected. "We felt like we had done it. Whether it's a matter of composure at the end I'm not sure, but it seems like a situation we have been in too many times before." Quite. At 24, Warburton has had the fortune to savour more sunlit days, not least the Welsh Grand Slam coronation on this very stage just nine months ago. But this signalled the culmination of three weeks to forget. Wales were, to use a little transatlantic parlance, 'oh-and-four' for their autumn series - even it might more accurately be summarised as 'oh-and-dear'.
Few could ever have predicted, given their all-conquering Six Nations display, that they would be brought to such a low ebb so soon. The disciples in red had desperately craved a more cathartic ending, to head into the depths of winter with the fillip of vanquishing Australia.
But they were denied even this consoling flourish, on a day when they also absorbed the knowledge that England were beating New Zealand. The stadium announcer at least had the good grace to contrast that shocking news with Wales' sevens win in the Gulf.
"England 15 New Zealand 0," he intoned at half-time, gravely. "Meanwhile, better news from Dubai ..." It was the first day of the festive shopping season and yet the 58,000 souls exiting the stadium, seemed distinctly short on good cheer.
Last weekend hundreds of jobs were lost at a Port Talbot steel plant, and now the province's sporting pride and joy found themselves on the wrong end of a Test series whitewash, sealed by betes noires Australia with one last kick in the teeth.
Happy Christmas, Cardiff
The Telegraph, London