THE Dragons gave Guinness PRO14 title hopefuls Munster a scare only to be edged out by the smallest margin at a sodden Rodney Parade.

Ceri Jones men came close to claiming a big scalp in Newport but had to settle for a consolation losing bonus while the Irish province returned to the top of Conference A.

It was a gutsy effort by the Dragons in energy-sapping conditions but they paid the price for getting on the wrong side of novice Scottish referee Ben Blain in the second half.

The penalty count rocketed (much to the chagrin of the home faithful) and the pressure eventually told with a key score from close range by South African lock Jean Kleyn in the final quarter.

The Dragons, whose points came from a Lloyd Fairbrother try, still had a chance to snatch it only for impressive fly-half Josh Lewis to pull a tricky kick, leaving them to lament what might have been after a gutsy effort.

Munster head coach Johann van Graan made 13 changes to the XV that won a bruising and thrilling Thomond Park encounter with Exeter 9-7 to secure a place in the Champions Cup quarter-finals.

Nonetheless, Munster still headed to Rodney Parade as favourites with a team boasting the quality of Jean Kleyn and Billy Holland in the boilerhouse, all-action former Springboks flanker Arno Botha and the experience of New Zealanders Alby Mathewson and Tyler Bleyendaal at scrum-half and inside centre.

It could be argued that the Dragons, with a much smaller budget, feel the absence of their six-strong contingent for the Six Nations more than the Irish province do their 11 selected by Joe Schmidt.

However, Jones’ men produced a battling display with captain Richard Hibbard rolling back the years to lead from the front with some shuddering hits.

Inside centre Jack Dixon responded to Jarryd Sage’s festive form with a strong effort on his return to the XV, flanker Harri Keddie got through a mountain of work, the tight five stood firm and fly-half Josh Lewis rewarded the graft of his forwards with a mature display.

It was a performance to be proud of and return to the battling efforts in the festive derbies rather than last week’s one against Clermont Auvergne, when they were overawed and outclassed by the Top 14 leaders.

South Wales Argus:

The horrendous conditions meant it was an afternoon for putting boot to ball and trying to force an error.

It was the Dragons that nearly profited first from that tactic with 10 minutes on the clock when Dixon’s grubber through led to his midfield partner Tyler Morgan charging down full-back Mike Haley.

Munster scrambled to gather the ball five metres out but their escape was short-lived.

The Dragons stayed in enemy territory and opted for the corner after a penalty for a high tackle on wing Will Talbot-Davies.

The drive was stopped but carries by Dixon and blindside Harri Keddie worked to within inches and tighthead Fairbrother finished off for a try that Lewis converted.

A second nearly followed after a break by Morgan and race down the right by Jared Rosser but the wing was unable to find an inside ball and the chance went.

Nonetheless, it was an encouraging first quarter by hosts for a seven-point advantage that was precious in the deteriorating conditions.

That was cut to four by Munster fly-half Bill Johnston after the Dragons backed up offences – a Rosser dangerous tackle then Keddie breakdown offence.

The Dragons botched a chance to stretch their advantage when their lineout faltered five metres out and the hosts were grateful to still be in front after having a mad final minute to the half.

Rosser flung a wild pass that was hacked on and forced fellow wing Will Talbot-Davies to scramble to gather on his own line and then, with just seconds left, the (understandable) clearance kick by Rhodri Williams failed to find touch.

Munster hammered away at the line and it looked as though Stephen Archer slid over, only for the TMO to deem that the tighthead had been grounded just shy of the line.

The theme continued after the resumption with both teams looking to force mistakes through their kicking game.

Talbot-Davies had to stretch to beat opposite number Darren Sweetnam to a grubber kick through but the Dragons man was forced to concede a five-metre scrum.

Munster won a penalty and opted for a lineout, which also earned a penalty as the visitors put the squeeze on up front.

The offences were racking up as Blain contemplated dipping into his pocket and the visitors kept turning down the three points.

The yellow card finally came – hard-working lock Matthew Screech given a 10-minute break – and five or seven points seemed inevitable… only for Munster to knock on driving for the line.

The visitors persisted with their policy of going for the corner rather than the tee but the Dragons, for who Hibbard was having a stormer, dug deep and earned a penalty to relieve the pressure.

However, it was one-way traffic and eventually Munster crossed after a quick tap and then hammering of the line.

Kleyn was the man to get over – with Mr Blain’s awarding of the try prompting boos because of the penalty count – but the conversion was wide and it was 8-7 to the visitors with 17 minutes left.

The Dragons had taken a lot of punishment but went straight down the other end to produce a strong driving lineout that was dragged down to give Lewis a shot at goal, only for the fly-half to pull the tricky effort as the clock ticked towards 70.

It was the final chance as Munster edged to four precious points in their play-off push, leaving the Dragons to be content with a bonus and pushing a title hopeful all the way.

Dragons: J Williams, J Rosser, T Morgan, J Dixon, W Talbot-Davies; J Lewis, R Williams; B Harris, R Hibbard (captain), L Fairbrother, J Davies (L Evans 63), M Screech, H Keddie, N Cudd, O Griffiths.

Scorers: try – L Fairbrother; conversion – J Lewis

Munster: M Haley (C Nash 64); D Sweetnam, D Goggin, T Bleyendaal (captain), R O’Mahony; B Johnston (J Taute 64), A Mathewson; J Loughman (L O’Connor 66), R Marshall (K O’Byrne 58), S Archer (C Parker 66); J Kleyn (D O’Shea 70), B Holland; F Wycherley, C Oliver (G Coombes 64), A Botha.

Scorers: try – J Kleyn; penalty – B Johnston

Referee: Ben Blain (Scotland)

Argus star man: Richard Hibbard