Munster 33 Dragons 13
WHEN, with 90 seconds gone, Newport Gwent Dragons conceded a try at Thomond Park without having touched the ball, it was easy to fear the worst.
When, with 14 minutes gone, Munster added a second, things were looking grim and looked likely to get grimmer.
When, with 22 minutes gone, the hosts turned down a shot at goal to kick to the corner despite having a lock in the sin bin it made you wonder if you should call for an abacus.
Yet with 15 minutes left the Munster natives were wondering whether they’d given the Dragons a sniff of ending their four-year wait for a win in Ireland – and eight-year wait for a win in the most southern province.
Alas, the door was firmly shut on the visitors but despite shipping five tries in defeat they go back to work today in far better shape than they did a week ago.
It may seem like the sort of mathematics that has left the Irish economy in a mess, but losing by 20 points in Limerick was far better than losing by 11 points seven days earlier.
The Dragons were a shambles when they lost to Cardiff Blues at Rodney Parade; it was an embarrassing performance in which nobody did themselves justice.
But they could hold their heads high after their display at Thomond Park.
A 20-point loss can never prompt celebrations but the context must be considering before sticking the boot in.
The magnificent surroundings and history of the ground didn’t inspire the Dragons, who are usually sent to Cork’s Musgrave Park, to victory.
But they did rouse them to produce a gutsy performance that could have earned an unlikely bonus point when they were hammering away at Munster in the second half.
Full-back Dan Evans and scrum-half Jonathan Evans continued their terrific starts to the season, but it was the magnificent performance of the back row that stood out, with Dan Lydiate, Jevon Groves and Tom Brown throwing themselves into wince-inducing collisions.
“I’m proud of the boys, we went toe to toe with a top-quality Munster side,” said captain Steve Jones, a member of the 2004 Dragons side that triumphed at Thomond.
“It was 100 times better than the Blues game. We came to one of the best sides in Europe, played them at their fortress and had a real go.”
Yet ultimately it’s another of those plucky defeats that the Dragons specialise in on their travels.
The damage was done by a rapid Munster start with the hosts playing with real width, fizzing the passes out to their strike runners in jerseys 11, 13, 14 and 15.
In the second minute swift lineout ball saw wingers Simon Zebo and Doug Howlett combine to put full-back Ian Keatley over.
On 14 minutes it was flanker Niall Ronan who was over down the same left flank after another impressive assist by the irrepressible Zebo.
Both tries were superbly converted by fly-half Ronan O’Gara, who seems to be able to predict every gust of wind at Thomond Park.
His efforts from the tee were in stark contrast to Tom Prydie, who put one penalty to the left of the sticks and another to the right.
That meant that the Dragons, despite having some good spells of possession and territory, trailed 14-6 at the break rather than 14-12.
The visitors started the second half on the front foot but failed to add to their score and they were made to pay by ruthless Munster.
Tighthead Dan Way was yellow-carded for coming into a ruck from the side in the 22 and the hosts scored 12 points in his absence – replacement scrum-half Conor Murray finishing a blindside move from a five-metre scrum and Zebo getting a score that his performance deserved.
The Dragons could have folded but back they came.
The TMO adjudged that centre Adam Hughes had been held up over the line by a terrific Murray tackle but there was no doubt about Dan Evans’ score on 61 minutes, the full-back darting over after the Dragons had backed their scrum by opting for a set piece from a penalty.
Suddenly, at 26-13, they had a spring in their step and it took a fine covering tackle by centre Keith Earls to deny wing Pat Leach, who was also beaten by the bounce of the ball in the dead ball area when chasing a neat chip by fellow replacement Andy Tuilagi.
There were a few nervous glances at watches in the stands as the Munster faithful pondered whether they had taken their foot off the gas a little early.
But their nerves were settled when a marvellous breakaway ended with flanker Tommy O’Donnell crossing in the corner with the unerring O’Gara adding the extras before sitting out the final few minutes.
There was still time for Groves and Evans to go close, the latter denied by the TMO, but the Dragons could not reduce the gap.
No matter, after the Blues shambles they restored some pride in Munster, strange as that sounds after a 33-13 defeat.
But they can ill-afford a fall when Edinburgh visit Rodney Parade on Friday – it may only be September but the Dragons face a game that will shape their season.
Play like they did at Thomond Park and they should be fine.