APPROPRIATELY at the home of Ebbw Vale, Newport Gwent Dragons showed plenty of steel to record a stunning pre-season win against Northampton.
It seemed like they were going to have to be content with a solid showing in defeat against the English champions yet they will head into their Guinness Pro12 opener against Connacht on the back of an incredible comeback victory.
Tries at the death by lock Cory Hill and Tom Prydie plus a pair of conversions by the winger turned a 25-13 deficit into a 27-25 shock success.
It wasn’t just the victory which was encouraging, after all they count for very little in pre-season, because the Dragons stood firm in the tight against one of Europe’s leading packs while number eight Andy Powell was excellent, carrying hard and tackling harder.
The coaching duo of Lyn and Kingsley Jones will have learnt plenty from a tough outing against the formidable Saints, certainly more than they did when beating an underpowered Bristol and part-timers Lydney.
It was also a valuable exercise off the field and the region’s hierarchy will have plenty to ponder after being forced to play game away from Rodney Parade because of the Nato summit.
Much is said about the Dragons needing to engage more with those outside of Newport but a mouth-watering game against a Northampton line-up that included some of the biggest names in world rugby attracted a pretty disappointing crowd.
Yes, it was a filthy night but anybody with a season ticket for a club in the region, let alone Dragons regulars, could claim a free ticket and just 2,763 headed through the turnstiles to see the likes of George North, Dylan Hartley, Courtney Lawes and Luther Burrell.
That certainly is no fault of Ebbw Vale, who reinforced their reputation for giving one of the warmest welcomes in Welsh rugby, yet it does raise doubt about whether the Dragons will ever win hearts and minds, although such performances may help.
On the field the hosts were hit by a blow before kick-off when Taulupe Faletau was ruled out with a bad back, a problem that is not said to be serious.
It does, however, raise doubt about whether he will be in contention to start against Connacht next Saturday given that he has not taken to the field since Wales’ June defeat to South Africa in Nelspruit.
And the Dragons received another injury blow just 14 minutes into the game when influential centre Pat Leach went down writhing in agony, clutching his right knee.
He was helped from the field and the coaching Joneses are now down to their last fit ‘senior’ centres in Jack Dixon and Tyler Morgan – who are 19 and 18 respectively.
The conditions were perfect preparation for Galway with Sportsground-esque rain and wind ensuring there were plenty of umbrellas up on the newly-christened Clive Burgess Terrace.
The Saints opened the scoring through the right boot of fly-half Will Hooley but his opposite number Jason Tovey levelled with his left peg and it was 3-3 approaching the quarter.
The visitors slowly built up the pressure with their notorious driving lineout and the call from captain Dylan Hartley came to go for the corner with penalties rather than the posts.
The Dragons were being given a stern test at the set piece but they stood firm with the Stankovich-Dee-Fairbrother doing a fine job.
Northampton were attempting to put the squeeze on through their tight five yet it was the backs that helped stretch away before half-time.
Hooley banged over a smart drop goal and then George Pisi crossed after his brother Ken had fielded an excellent Burrell crosskick and shipped on to Lee Dickson, who provided the scoring pass.
And the Samoan centre was over for his second before the break when he charged down a clearance by Tovey – who had previously struck some marvellous touch-finders – and raced over.
Hooley added the extras before the Dragons fly-half had the final say of the half to make it 18-6.
And it was the hosts that struck first after the restart when the ball fell kindly for Aled Brew after a Lee Byrne up-and-under, enabling the winger to race over for a score that Tovey improved.
But any hopes of a comeback were quashed when Northampton full-back James Wilson slid in down the right to make it 25-13.
Both benches were emptied and the game then appeared to be drifting to an end, but then came the Dragons’ late flurry after a pair of Saint errors, Hill finishing off after teenage centre Barney Nightingale burst through and Prydie hacking through and then gathering a loose ball.
Dragons: L Byrne (G R Jones 59), T Prydie, P Leach (T Morgan 14), J Dixon (B Nightingale 72), A Brew (M Pewtner 56), J Tovey (A O’Brien 59), J Evans (D Jones 67), B Stankovich (O Evans 47), E Dee (R Thomas 53), L Fairbrother (D Young 43, D Way 63), R Landman (I Gough 47, M Screech 78), M Screech (C Hill 47), A Coombs (L Evans 43), N Cudd (S Matthews 63, J Benjamin 72), A Powell (J Thomas 60).
Scorers: tries – A Brew, C Hill, T Prydie; conversions – J Tovey, T Prydie (2); penalties – J Tovey (2)
Northampton: J Wilson , K Pisi, G Pisi, L Burrell, G North, W Hooley, L Dickson, A Corbisiero, D Hartley (captain), S Ma’afu, C Lawes, C Day, C Clark, T Wood, S Manoa. Replacements: R McMillan, A Waller, G Denman, J Craig, C Dolan, T Harrison, J Fisher, J Fotual’i, D Waldouck, J Elliott, H Packman, J Skelcey, S Olver.
Scorers: tries – G Pisi (2), J Wilson; conversions – W Hooley (2); penalty – W Hooley; drop goal – W Hooley
Referee: Ian Davies (WRU)
Argus star man: Andy Powell