NEWPORT Gwent Dragons went close to pulling off a major upset but were undone in the last two minutes in tonight's Amlin Challenge Cup clash by Bayonne and their Wales scrum half Mike Phillips.
The 2009 Lions’ first choice No 9 brushed off some weak tackling to score the winning try at the Stade Jean Dauger to complete his side’s second half comeback.
The visitors had been in the driving seat, leading 19-6 with half an hour to go as they looked on course to avenge the Top 14 side’s 22-19 victory at Rodney Parade in October.
The Basque side showed them scant regard when they named their starting XV but were forced to bring on big guns like Phillips and highly experienced ex-All Blacks tighthead prop Neemia Tialata from the bench when they were staring defeat in the face.
Had they held on, it would have been the first time the Dragons had won in France since they beat the same opposition in the same competition 32-15 six years ago.
The hosts had got off to a good start when their South African fly half Jacques-Louis Potgieter put them ahead after just two minutes with a penalty but that was soon cancelled out by Tom Prydie’s long range effort.
But the Dragons full back’s missed a straightforward effort in the 19th minute that would have given the visitors the lead.
They were made to pay for his carelessness almost immediately when Potgieter gave his side a 6-3 advantage.
But the outside half went from hero to villain after his clearance kick was charged down from the restart.
Dragons wing Mike Poole did the sterling work and the visitors’ excellent captain and openside Lewis Evans pounced on the loose ball to score his 23rd minute try which Prydie converted.
Playing with self belief against a shaky Bayonne, the Dragons scented blood and scrum half Jonathan Evans’ great break saw him cause mayhem deep in Bayonne territory but it all came to nothing because of a lack of support.
And Evans was at it at again with another magnificent run after some slick interplay between backs and forwards.
He was hauled down just short of the posts but home full back Sam Gerber, another South African, was sent to the sin bin by English referee Andrew Small for killing the ball at the breakdown.
Prydie slotted over the easy penalty to give the Gwent region a deserved 13-6 lead after half an hour.
It was Bayonne’s turn to be wasteful soon after when Potgieter missed an easy attempt at goal.
The Dragons set piece was firing well and they had the Bayonne scrum in all sorts of trouble late in the first half.
And it was a tremendous shove by the visiting eight that earned them a penalty which Prydie put over in the 37th minute to extend their lead to ten points, the half ending with them 16-6 in the lead.
Evans’ men started the second half in the same vein as the first 40 and dominated the early proceedings but Prydie again let the home side off the hook when he missed another kickable penalty.
But he made up for it with a 50th minute shot at goal that put them further ahead.
A shell-shocked Bayonne were forced to play their hand and started to beef up their front row by bringing on Tialata.
And he made an immediate impression, helping win a penalty which Bayonne used as a platform for replacement hooker David Roumieu’s try, superbly converted by Potgieter which put the hosts just six points adrift.
The hosts were on a roll now and the game had been turned on its head, the Dragons now defending for their lives.
The visitors’ lineout also began to creak badly as they also put themselves under unnecessary pressure.
Their resolve broke a quarter of an hour before the end when replacement Phillips’ long pass to Gerber saw the full back beat Will Harries’ weak and despairing tackle.
Substitute Matthieu Ugalde’s conversion attempt was narrowly wide so the Dragons were still ahead, clinging on to a 19-18 lead.
After being under serious pressure in the scrum, the Dragons were somewhat ironically awarded a penalty by Small at the set piece deep in the Bayonne half and Prydie kicked his fifth penalty.
But Phillips broke Dragons’ hearts with his 78th minute try as he ploughed through some tired defenders, Ugalde’s conversion giving them a three-point advantage.
The Dragons valiantly launched a last gasp attack, going through phase after phase, but Bayonne just held them out.
Bayonne: S Gerber, G Lovobalavu, M Ahotaeiloa, L Mazars (capt), B Fuster, J-L Potgieter (M Ugalde 62), G Rouet (M Phillips 62), P-P Lafond (M Legras 70), A Etrillard (D Roumieu 50), R Boyoud (N Tialata 50), R Linde (D Senekal 78), M Graham, A Boutaty (J Puricelli 50), J J Marmouyet, M Baget-Rabarou.
Bayonne scorers: Tries – David Roumieu, Sam Gerber, Mike Phillips, Conversions – Jacques-Louis Potgieter, Matthieu Ugalde, Penalties – Jacques-Louis Potgieter (2)
Newport Gwent Dragons: T Prydie, W Harries, A Hughes, A Tuilagi (A Smith 72), M Poole (J Dixon 40) S Jones, J Evans, O Evans (N Williams 67), H Gustafson (S Parry 67), N Buck (T Ryan 74), A Jones (A Coombs 44), R Sidoli, J Groves (T Faletau 50), L Evans (capt), I Jones.
Replacement: W Evans.
Dragons scorers – Try – Lewis Evans, Conversion – Tom Prydie Penalties – Prydie (5)
Referee: Andrew Small (England)
Argus star man: Lewis Evans