THE Dragons became the first side to lose to Zebre since last December after being humiliated 39-12 in the Guinness PRO14 at Rodney Parade.

Dean Ryan has made an encouraging start to life at the region but the director of rugby was given a reminder, if he needed one, about the size of the task facing him in Newport.

The Dragons were outclassed by a Zebre team who had not won in any competition since beating Enisei-STM last year.

The Italians played with energy, intent and power, contrasting with the sluggish, flat and error-strewn display of their hosts.

The Dragons had hammered Zebre 52-28 during the World Cup in October to end their embarrassing league away drought but things were always going to be tougher on home soil.

The Italians were much stronger thanks to their international contingent while the hosts were without six players – hooker Elliot Dee, tighthead Leon Brown, back rowers Aaron Wainwright and Ollie Griffiths, fly-half Sam Davies and wing Ashton Hewitt – who were on Wales duty against the Barbarians, plus the injured Ross Moriarty and Cory Hill.

Campaign Series:

The Dragons looked a little flat in their absence, missing the spark and dynamism of their Test game-breakers and Jordan Williams, who is out for the season after rupturing knee ligaments.

It was a game that exposed the squad depth that Ryan has at his disposal, and the returning Wales players will be needed in the Euro double-header against Worcester and then festive derbies.

The boss said that opportunity knocked in the fixture and challenged his players to show that they are not just understudies. Nobody grasped their chance.

An evening to forget got even worse when wing Dafydd Howells needed oxygen as he was helped from the field with a dislocated elbow; the meagre back three resources are now even more stretched.

The Dragons were hunting a first league double since upsetting Leinster in 2015 and a hat-trick of wins in Newport. It never looked likely.

The display in the second of those, against Castres, had angered Ryan and the former England forward would have been even more grouchy after his side were overrun by Zebre.

The Italians dominated territory in the early exchanges and got their reward in the ninth minute when a big burst into the 22 by flanker Maxime Mbanda was followed by a neat grubber through by fly-half Carlo Canna, who converted after wing James Elliot won the race to the ball.

The Dragons were finding things hard carrying into the hefty visiting forwards but got the settler they needed in the 19th minute.

Centre Jack Dixon was the creator with a strong carry and calm offload to put number eight Harri Keddie over for a try that fly-half Arwel Robson converted.

Zebre edged back in front with an excellent Canna strike after Keddie was pinged for not rolling away 45 metres out but the fly-half wasn’t as accurate with a drop goal as the Italians attempted to keep the scoreboard ticking.

However, he was swiftly presented with an easy chance to make amends when the Dragons were offside in front of their own posts in the 22.

The success made it 13-7 and that’s how it stayed at the break with the hosts’ frustration exacerbated by a miss from the tee by Robson after good work at the contact area by flanker Huw Taylor and a botched lineout in the 22.

The Dragons were up against it after making a sloppy start to the second half and conceding when the ball was worked left from the 11th phase for Elliot to offload and put full-back Edoardo Padovani over.

Canna converted to make it 20-7 and it got worse for the freezing home supporters when superb offloading and intent saw centre Tommaso Boni crash over.

With 51 minutes gone it was 27-7 and the Dragons were playing for pride, Zebre were playing for their bonus point.

They completed bossed territory and put the squeeze on their hosts, getting their reward when Canna’s long pass put wing Charlie Walker over down the right.

The Dragons had a consolation straight from the restart when a kick was charged down for flanker Taine Basham, back after a week with Wales, to cross for his seventh try of the season.

But Zebre had the final say when Mbanda got the try his performance deserved by galloping clear, completing a miserable night for the hosts.

Dragons: W Talbot-Davies, D Howells (T Morgan 44), A Warren, J Dixon, O Jenkins, A Robson (J Botica 44), T Knoyle (R Williams 52), B Harris (J Reynolds 72), R Hibbard (captain, E Shipp 68), L Fairbrother (A Jarvis 54), J Davies, M Screech, H Taylor, T Basham, H Keddie (B Fry 65).

Scorers: tries – H Keddie, T Basham; conversion – A Robson

Zebre: E Padovani, C Walker, G Bisegni, T Boni, J Elliott, C Canna, M Violi, D Fischetti, L Bigi, G Zilocchi, M Kearney, I Nagle, M Mbanda, G Licata, R Giammarioli. Replacements: O Fabiani, A Lovotti, E Bello, D Sisi, J Meyer, J Renton, M Biondelli, P Bruno.

Scorers: tries – J Elliot, E Padovani, T Boni, C Walker, M Mbanda; conversions – C Canna, M Biondelli; penalties – C Canna (2)

Referee: George Clancy (Ireland)

Attendance: 3,332