DRAGONS 19 ULSTER 46
IN a match billed as a battle between two sides with conflicting budgets, Newport Gwent Dragons were unable to prevent Ulster from dealing in the currency they specialise in – wins.
The Irish province march on in the RaboDirect Pro12 with six successes from six while the Dragons continue to flounder with just winless Zebre beneath them.
As usual, there was plenty of plucky spirit on display last night but that in itself doesn’t earn league points nor prevent many from bracketing them with the hapless Italians.
This week an article in The Independent on the state of Welsh rugby followed the region’s name with just two words: “Oh dear”.
Many of the 5,057 that were at a freezing Rodney Parade would have shared those sentiments as they headed home, though they may have used language as blue as their lips.
Yes, Ulster are on a crest of a wave thanks to a hefty wage bill that enabled them to field Tommy Bowe, Ruan Pienaar, Nick Williams, John Afoa and Rory Best.
But rarely can the Dragons have headed into a fixture with so few of their supporters expecting them to make a game of it.
As ever, the determination and attitude of the players could not be questioned – they gave absolutely everything against the Irishmen – but they just weren’t good enough.
Talk of encouragement at performance and making strides won’t wash when the season is pretty much a write-off before Toby Faletau has even worn the red of Wales.
The Amlin Challenge Cup is gone courtesy of two losses from two and hopes of challenging for next year’s Heineken Cup seem ambitious for a side one from the bottom of the Pro 12.
Yet despite shipping three tries, the Dragons were in with a sniff at the break.
They made a terrific start, defending solidly against the strong Ulster carriers and earning a 6-0 lead thanks to a pair of penalties by full-back Tom Prydie.
But they were behind on 16 minutes when Pienaar made a dart inside the 22 and offloaded – albeit with a forward pass – to Ireland prop Tom Court to go under the sticks, making the South African’s conversion a simple one.
But the Springboks star then uncharacteristically missed two shots at goal and allowed the Dragons to take the lead approaching the half hour.
Drive after drive by the pack took the hosts deep into the Ulster 22 before centre Andy Tuilagi – playing as impressively as he had against Bayonne the previous weekend – barged over.
With Prydie adding the extras the Dragons led 13-7... but not for long.
Ulster showed the qualities of leading title contenders to strike straight back when number eight Nick Williams, so often the scourge of the Dragons, most notably when scoring a hat-trick in Cork in the colours of Munster, reached over for their second seven-pointer.
Back came the hosts with Prydie edging them back in front with a penalty from halfway.
Then back came the visitors with Pienaar charging down Prydie’s clearance and dotting down for a 19-16 lead that they took into the second half.
As they mulled over the first 40 minutes the Dragons would have been frustrated at their inability to escape from their half after their scores.
But, with their forwards carrying hard against their powerful visitors, they were in with a shot of an upset as the game got back under way.
They didn’t help themselves when they conceded a penalty straight from the kick-off to allow Pienaar to boot the Ulstermen into a six-point lead.
And when Toby Faletau was forced off after suffering a blow to his right ankle, one feared that the Dragons would struggle to live with the bulk of the leaders. So it proved.
Pienaar and Prydie traded three-pointers and the hosts were clinging on to the Irish province with the score at 25-19 entering the last half hour.
But Ulster applied the killer blow on the hour when centre Darren Cave – one of their Ireland contingent – dived over for the bonus point score.
It got worse when one of his international teammates, wing Andrew Trimble, intercepted fly-half Lewis Robling’s pass to run in from 50 metres.
And it got even worse. When another midfield mix-up gifted a sixth try to Jared Payne there was a stampede for the exits.
It looks likely to be a long, long season.
Dragons: T Prydie, W Harries, A Hughes, A Tuilagi (P Leach 71), T Chavhanga, L Robling (S Jones 60), J Evans (L Davies 66), O Evans (N Williams 49), Steve Jones (captain, S Parry 54), N Buck (D Way 66), A Jones (I Nimmo 54), R Sidoli, T Brown, J Groves, T Faletau (N Cudd 44).
Scorers: try – A Tuilagi; conversions – T Prydie; penalties – T Prydie (4)
Ulster: T Bowe, A Trimble, D Cave (J Payne 64), P Wallace (L Marshall 56), C Gilroy; R Pienaar, P Marshall (P Jackson 64), T Court, R Best, D Fitzpatrick (J Afoa 56), L Stevenson, D Tuohy (M McComish 60), I Henderson, C Henry (captain), N Williams (R Wilson 53).
Scorers: tries – T Court, N Williams, R Pienaar, D Cave, A Trimble; conversions – R Pienaar (4); penalties – R Pienaar (2)
Referee: Peter Fitzgibbon (Ireland)
Argus star man: Tom Brown