Dragons 37 Zebre 6
LAST season it took until April for Newport Gwent Dragons to notch a four-try bonus point. This term it took less than one half of rugby.
The region made the perfect start to the RaboDirect Pro12 campaign by sending Zebre packing with plenty to spare at Rodney Parade.
They scored four tries and were clinical when presented with opportunities but, in stark contrast to the new Italian franchise, it was their excellent defence that did it.
In their final pre-season friendly the Dragons swarmed all over London Irish to prevent a side that scores tries for fun in the Aviva Premiership crossing their whitewash.
They repeated the trick to respond to the pressure, from inside the camp and out, that had been ramped on them all week.
Even though the Dragons managed just one Pro12 four-try bonus point last season – barely a consolation in a miserable home loss to Treviso – they knew a five-pointer would be a real statement of intent.
That was not to say they were underestimating Zebre; the hosts spent all week predicted a bruising and tight encounter.
But that was sportsman’s talk.
If the Dragons are serious about finishing above their Welsh rivals and qualifying for next year’s Heineken Cup then the Pro12 whipping boys had to be dealt with. And deal with them they did.
Not even the pre-match withdrawal of experienced scrum-half Wayne Evans with a sore back could derail the Dragons.
That meant Jon Evans was promoted from the bench to resume a half-back partnership with Steffan Jones that was first fielded by Bargoed Youth but their inexperience wasn’t exposed.
Aironi became Zebre this summer but, just like Katie Price/Jordan, their name change didn’t make them any classier.
Perhaps they had one eye on their first home encounter against Connacht but they lacked conviction on their first display.
They showed a few nice touches but they remain a side whose game is based on bulk and by and large they came to spoil, slow down and frustrate.
It was mission accomplished by them in the opening exchanges but the floodgates opened after a 10th-minute Tom Prydie penalty got the Dragons moving.
Andy Tuilagi scored the first try of the campaign when smart work by scrum-half Jonathan Evans put debutant Dan Evans in motion on halfway before the full-back calmly gave his centre a run-in.
Prydie added the extras and did the same when wing Will Harries finished off an 80-metre counter-attack, even though it started with a hint of a knock-on by captain Steve Jones.
And there was just 26 minutes on the clock when the Dragons had their third score, once again their suffocating defence doing the damage to earn a turnover inside the Italians’ 22 that enabled Steffan Jones to give Dan Evans the simplest of tries to open his account for the region.
The former Scarlets man doubled his tally with the last play of the half with another score that highlighted Zebre’s defensive fragility. The ball was simply put through the hands down the left where Evans strolled over.
It was like chalk and cheese in defence – when the Dragons’ line was breached they scrambled superbly while Zebre softly shipped points.
In fairness they tightened up after the break and if there is one disappointment from last night it is that the Dragons didn’t really put their visitors to the sword.
But that is a minor gripe on a night that yielded five points and contained plenty of promising signs.
All three debutants – Evans, Prydie and lock Ian Nimmo – added to the team and Jevon Groves had a good night as an emergency openside in the absence of injured sevens Lewis Evans and Darren Waters.
But perhaps most pleasing was the way that Andy Tuilagi and the excellent Pat Leach combined in midfield, putting in some hard hits in defence and doing things with efficiency in attack.
That combination had been broken up to give Ashley Smith game time by the time the scoreboard operators were troubled in the second half.
Prydie knocked over a 73rd-minute penalty to at least ensure the half wasn’t a scoreless one.
Things will get tougher when the Dragons take on European champions Leinster in seven days’ time but they head over to Dublin in fine fettle.
Last night was must-win and they did it in style.