A DOGGED effort by Newport Gwent Dragons fell short as they ran out of steam in their bid to upset the Guinness PRO12 title-chasing Scarlets at Principality Stadium.
The Dragons led 6-3 at half-time but were unable to break their Judgement Day duck with Wales stars Jonathan Davies and Liam Williams scoring tries to lift the ‘visitors’ to third in the table.
But Kingsley Jones’ men leave the capital with a well-deserved bonus point thanks to a cracking score by wing Adam Hughes at the death, his effort rewarding their honest graft in a game that many expected to be a rout.
The Dragons played with brains and tenacity to make it a dogfight, showing the sort of snarl that had been missing for much of a nine-game losing streak.
They had shipped 22 tries in their previous four league games but held the Scarlets out for an hour.
It may not have been the sort of free-flowing rugby to get the crowd on their feet – and the 60,642 event crowd noticeably thinned as the game progressed – but it was just what the Dragons needed.
Sadly the Scarlets upped their game in the second half to take the spoils but it was at least a tenacious effort to give hope for the final outings of the season against Edinburgh and Cardiff Blues.
It may now be 10 losses on the spin but with flanker Ollie Griffiths putting in another gargantuan performance, sure to earn a place on Wales’ summer tour, there were some glimmers of hope.
The Dragons suffered an early blow when Lloyd Fairbrother was forced off with a knee injury after just five minutes but they overcame that setback to take the lead in the 13th minute through the right boot of fly-half Angus O’Brien.
The fly-half, on his 50th appearance for the region, swiftly doubled the advantage after excellent work from the restart by Lewis Evans, Nic Cudd and Sam Beard forced a breakdown infringement by Wales wing Liam Williams.
Some of the crowd may not have been that engrossed with the action – the dreaded Mexican wave started after just 11 minutes – but it was good stuff from the ‘hosts’ as the game entered its second quarter.
They were holding their own up front against the Scarlets’ pack, which featured five players who played in the Six Nations, and centre Beard was lively with ball in hand.
It took good covering defensive work by Lions hopeful Liam Williams to deny O’Brien from a chip and chase as the Dragons continued to have the better of things.
However, the Scarlets got on the scoreboard through fly-half Dan Jones when hooker Rhys Buckley was penalised for a no-arms tackle on Wales lock Jake Ball.
The Dragons went straight back on the offensive and had a marvellous opportunity when O’Brien’s neat grubber forced full-back Johnny McNicholl into touch five metres short.
The first drive was stopped illegally and captain Evans pointed back to the corner only for the Scarlets to defend well and force a knock-on, hooker Buckley hindered by his jersey being pulled up over his head.
Nonetheless, the Dragons were going nicely and some good defensive work – with that man Cudd over the ball again – ensured they headed to their changing room with a well-deserved 6-3 advantage.
The Scarlets would have had a rocket from Wayne Pivac with the demand to up the tempo while the ‘hosts’ would have been hammering home the need to avoid the daft errors that have plagued their season and frequently put them under pressure at key moments.
The visitors put the squeeze on with the first scrum of the half to earn a penalty that enabled them to hammer away at the line but yet more excellent defence by Cudd held up Scotland back rower John Barclay in a ‘choke tackle’ and earned a turnover.
However, the Scarlets levelled with half an hour left through Jones and started to get the upper hand.
Pivac withdrew Jones and played with Hadleigh Parkes, a centre/wing by trade, at 10 and without a specialist kicker Liam Williams promptly kicked a penalty over the deadball line rather than to the corner.
The Dragons were creaking and a burst by centre Jonathan Davies and former Rodney Parade favourite Jonathan Evans ended with wing Adam Hughes being yellow-carded for killing the ball after an excellent scrambling tackle.
And the 14 men were seven points behind on the hour when Wales centre Davies was worked over down the left (Hughes’ wing) from a quick tap with Liam Williams adding the extras via the right post.
O’Brien responded with a penalty only for Williams to add another three points with a nice strike with 13 minutes left.
The Wales winger secured the spoils with a well-taken try with nine minutes left but the Dragons had the final say to earn their consolation.
They escaped from their half thanks to a lovely O’Brien offload and burst by Jack Dixon and then, after the Scarlets had seemingly snuffed out the danger, a counter-attack ended with Tyler Morgan and O’Brien putting Hughes under the posts.
O’Brien’s extras made it 21-16 and while it was another defeat, this one was nowhere near as demoralising as many from the past months.
Dragons: C Meyer (D Jones 63, J Dixon 69), A Hughes, T Morgan, S Beard, A Warren (T Prydie 47), A O’Brien, C Davies, S Hobbs (P Price 65), R Buckley (R Thomas 65), L Fairbrother (B Harris 5), M Screech (A Sweet 56), C Hill, O Griffiths, N Cudd, L Evans (captain, H Keddie 67).
Scorers: try – A Hughes; conversion – A O’Brien; penalties – A O’Brien (3)
Scarlets: J McNicholl (DTH van der Merwe 71), L Williams, J Davies, S Williams, S Evans, D Jones (H Parkes 52), G Davies (J Evans 52), R Evans (W Jones ), K Owens (captain, E Phillips ), S Lee ( W Kruger ), J Ball, T Price, T Beirne, J Davies (J Macleod 17), J Barclay.
Scorers: tries – J Davies, L Williams; conversion – L Williams; penalties – D Jones (2), L Williams
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Attendance (whole day): 60,642
Argus star man: Ollie Griffiths