DRAGONS 19 BAYONNE 22
STILL in his garish special edition purple kit and weary after a bruising 80 minutes, scrum-half Jonathan Evans summed it up perfectly as he reflected on Newport Gwent Dragons’ performance against Bayonne.
“We wanted to come off the field without any ‘ifs’ and without wondering what could have happened, but that’s exactly what we’ve got,” he lamented.
It’s what would have kept the players awake in the early hours of Sunday, that and the bumps and bruises after giving their all.
If only fly-half Lewis Robling had passed to wing Will Harries when the line was seemingly at his mercy in the first half.
If only they hadn’t allowed Bayonne back into the game when leading 16-6 approaching half-time.
If only full-back Tom Prydie had popped a simple pass to Tonderai Chavhanga when the former Springbok speedster had a run-in.
If only the mightily impressive Andy Tuilagi had not kicked turnover ball away when he seemed to have an overlap to his right.
If only they had sneaked over the line when the 80 minutes were gone and they rattled through 21 phases à la Munster in their pomp in search of a winner.
The Dragons put in a gutsy performance that restored some pride after a gloomy few weeks but they will also have plenty of regrets as they meet up again to try to plot the downfall of unbeaten Ulster on Friday evening.
They had the chances to add Bayonne to last year’s scalp of Perpignan but lacked the composure to nail their chances.
Yet there was much that was encouraging in their display against the Frenchmen.
Yes, it was another home defeat – a fifth in eight games – and it signals the end of their Amlin Challenge Cup campaign after just two games.
But the pack responded to recent justified criticism by, in the parlance they love, ‘fronting up’ to a pretty formidable Bayonne eight while the backs took it to their opposition and chanced their arm rather than going into their shells.
There were plenty of standout peformances, with Andy Tuilagi immense in midfield, number eight Toby Faletau getting through a mountain of work in attack and defence, blindside Tom Brown knocking Bayonne back and prop Owen Evans, on his first start, raising the question ‘where’s he been lurking?’ after impressing in the loose and the set piece.
The challenge is to maintain the standard that they set against Bayonne rather than relapsing into the displays against Cardiff Blues and the Scarlets that leave them playing catch-up in the Pro12.
The Dragons started superbly and were in front after six minutes thanks to a training- ground move that saw Tuilagi crash the ball up before swift second-phase ball allowed Brown to take a short pass from scrum-half Evans to go dashing over from 25 metres.
It was then all about the kickers, with Prydie booting a pair of penalties to go along with his conversion and Bayonne’s metronomic fly-half Benjamin Boyet striking a pair of three-pointers.
On the half-hour came the first of the Dragons’ regrets when Robling made a magnificent break but failed to give the pass to Harries on his right.
It’s possible that the wing would have been tackled by Thibault Lacroix but he should have been given the chance.
That trip to the 22 did yield another three points through the boot of Prydie, but with the Dragons in control at 16-6 they left the door ajar for the French side before the break.
Harries ran the ball when isolated in his own half rather than putting boot to ball and was turned over by lock Abdellatif Boutaty. Bayonne went on the attack and after a couple of thrusts by Gabiriele Lovobalavu it was Aussie skipper Mark Chisholm who crashed over.
Boyet converted, then added a penalty, and the Dragons had thrown away a 10-point lead that could have led to Gallic shrugs (albeit with a southern hemisphere twist) at half-time.
It was nip and tuck for all of the second half but the visitors, for whom former France Under-20s wing Marvin O’Connor had been a real threat, were just about worthy of their 22-19 lead as the clock struck 80.
Then the Dragons stole a lineout – their first of the evening – and produced what is probably their best attack of the season so far, looking after the ball and asking questions of the Bayonne defence through 21 phases that marched them 40 metres back to their own line.
In the end it was a slow death, the television match official taking his time before confirming what most feared – that the Dragons had been held up over the line.
That they didn’t go for a drop goal to share the spoils in a must-win game is commendable, and that late, late attack showed what they are capable of.
Just like the Pro12 win against Edinburgh, it wasn’t a performance that can mask the problems that exist at the region.
But the voices that roared them on in a dramatic late flurry told a story. They were far happier safe in the knowledge that their team had given it everything.