BLUES 12 DRAGONS 10
THEY won’t raise the white flag but Newport Gwent Dragons’ hopes of a scrap for Heineken Cup rugby were ended in the mud of Cardiff Arms Park today.
A ten-point gap to the Blues means another season of Amlin Challenge Cup rugby is on the cards and it’s not just the RaboDirect Pro12 table that will be causing their pain.
Amid talk of turning them into a development region, a Dragons victory would have made a timely statement.
And, stronger in the set piece and better up front, they produced a performance that should have yielded four points.
Should have but didn’t – that most familiar of reflections for the one-from-bottom Dragons.
As they have done so frequently this season and in past campaigns, they were left to reflect on missed kicks, a drop goal that was inches wide and opportunities that went begging.
It means that once again the Rodney Parade region are destined to be ranked fourth in Wales, staying in the targets of those that want to ring the changes.
Of course they will keep battling on – their spirit can never be questioned – but it is a plight that will do little to silence their critics.
“It’s something that we certainly don’t want at the Dragons,” said head coach Darren Edwards when asked about the WRU’s idea for a development region.
“It would be nice to just concentrate on putting the regions right rather than trying to dismantle them. We will wait and see what the powers that be sort out.
“It would have been a timely win and there are some really bright things here. We have to continue to develop and nurture that talent because they are continually downtrodden and that’s not the best way to bring them through.
“All you hear is about how bad things are in Welsh rugby.
“Doom and gloom is not what players need to hear, they need to hear some positive things from the Union and from everybody.”
Unfortunately the weather conditions didn’t help raise the spirits in the capital.
Howling wind and persistent rain made you long for the venue next door with its roof and a surface that may not be perfect but is a heck of a lot better than the one at the Arms Park, which had hosted a derby against the Scarlets five days earlier.
Maybe the Millennium Stadium double-header would be better placed in the calendar in winter rather than spring. But, alas, the Blues and Dragons had to grin and get on with it, battling for the privilege to say in the post-match interviews that they had ‘played the conditions better’.
The Dragons bossed the first quarter of an hour but failed to make their pressure count.
Dan Evans missed a shot at goal and the hosts defended their line well when another penalty was kicked to five metres out.
In boxing parlance on Boxing Day, the Dragons were winning on points.
But not on the scoreboard and they were shown how to do it when Blues fly-half Rhys Patchell nailed a 45-metre kick.
Three points are incredibly valuable in such awful conditions and the ginger number 10 was just as ruthless to double the lead on 20 minutes then provide a nine-point buffer on the half hour.
Patchell’s fine efforts in the strong wind were hammered home when Evans – using a driver rather than a nine iron – missed his second shot at goal from 25 metres out, slap bang in front of the sticks.
It was 9-0 at the break and at such times it’s frequently said the next score is vital.
Thankfully it came from the visitors. A patient attack with admirable handling in the conditions saw centre Andy Tuilagi steamroller over with scrum-half Wayne Evans adding the extras while Dan Evans, who will undergo a scan on his injured leg, lay stricken in the mud.
The Dragons took the lead entering the last quarter through the right boot of Lewis Robling but held it for just one phase – replacement prop Owen Evans picked the ball up when offside from the restart to give Patchell another three-point gift.
From that moment it was total Dragons territorial dominance but try as they could they were unable to force their way over, earn a penalty or knock over a drop goal in the squelching mud.
The post-match talk should have been about it being game on in the race for Heineken Cup rugby.
Instead it was about that familiar devastation and frustration.
Blues: J Tovey, A Cuthbert, G Evans, D Hewitt, H Robinson, R Patchell, L Jones (A Walker 61), S Hobbs (T Filise 52-56), R Williams (K Dacey 70), S Andrews (B Bourrust 52), B Davies, L Reed, R Copeland (J Navidi 58), S Warburton, A Pretorius (captain).
Scorers: penalties – R Patchell (4)
Dragons: H Amos, W Harries, P Leach, A Tuilagi (J Dixon 68), M Poole, D Evans (L Robling 52), W Evans (J Evans 52), P Price (O Evans 61), S Parry (H Gustafson 69), D Way (N Buck 61), A Coombs, R Sidoli (A Jones 61), L Evans (captain), N Cudd (T Brown 52), T Faletau.
Scorers: try – A Tuilagi; conversion – W Evans; penalty – L Robling
Referee: Leighton Hodges (WRU)
Star man: Toby Faletau