THE Dragons paid the price for a pair of sluggish starts after suffering a first home defeat since November at the hands of Benetton.

The men from Treviso, who were given the all clear by Guinness PRO14 officials to fulfil the fixture despite the coronavirus outbreak in northern Italy, took the spoils 37-25 to end the region’s five-match winning streak in Newport.

The Dragons could have few complaints after falling 14-0 behind early on and then, after working hard to reduce the gap to 17-13 at half-time, conceding an extremely soft try immediately after the resumption.

Benetton were well-drilled and in classy and prolific fly-half Ian Keatley possessed an assured game controller that Dean Ryan lacked in the absence of Sam Davies, who will be with Wales at Twickenham.

The Dragons had flashes of inspiration – often featuring talisman Ollie Griffiths – but never really built up a head of steam.

That meant they failed to build their advantage over the Ospreys in the Welsh mini-league or close in on Cardiff Blues.

South Wales Argus:

The clash was a huge test of the Dragons’ strength of depth; a test that they failed in November when hammered by the other Italian team, Zebre.

Even without Ross Moriarty and Aaron Wainwright, Ryan was able to select a formidable back row of Harri Keddie, Taine Basham and Griffiths but the cupboard was bare elsewhere.

Davies’ inclusion in Wales’ travelling party for Twickenham, combined with Josh Lewis’ long-term injury, meant a first start at 10 for Jacob Botica towards the end of his second campaign at Rodney Parade.

Front row injuries meant a start for 21-year-old loosehead Josh Reynolds with on-trial Irishman Conor Maguire as his back-up while Ellis Shipp deputised for Richard Hibbard, although Wales international Elliot Dee made a welcome return to the bench after being denied Six Nations appearances by a rib issue.

Benetton were without their considerable Italy contingent, even though the Azzurri’s clash with Ireland had been postponed, but one feared they were more capable of coping with being stretched.

So it proved and in former Munster fly-half Keatley they had a composed figure to make the most of the heavy units’ toil.

South Wales Argus:

Conditions were thankfully much better than against the Cheetahs six days earlier and the visitors made the most of having a dry ball.

Slick handling down the right and a pair of terrific offloads led to full-back Luca Sperandio racing over for a try converted by captain Keatley.

The Irish fly-half then opted for the corner rather than the posts after his compatriot George Clancy penalised an offside.

The brave call was rewarded with a pushover try from five metres with hooker Tomos Baravalle rewarded for hitting his man from the lineout.

Keatley expertly made it 14-0 after just 14 minutes before Botica made it 14-6 with a pair of penalties.

The home fly-half then hit the left post with a long-range effort after fine breakdown work by Keddie; the gap remained eight points but the Dragons had responded well after their nightmare start.

However, Keatley was pulling the strings nicely and also kicking his points with a simple penalty in the 35th minute making it 17-6.

The Dragons had created next to nothing but timed things perfectly to close the gap with the final play of the half.

South Wales Argus:

Prop Reynolds hit the line hard from a Matthew Screech tip-on and found a gap to go on a 40-metre charge to the 22 before producing a peach of an offload to put captain Rhodri Williams over. Botica’s routine conversion made it 17-13 at the break.

Dee provided another boost by coming on for the second half but shocking defence allowed the visitors to calm their nerves with a third try almost immediately.

The Dragons left themselves short down the blindside and then a combination of Botica and wing Ashton Hewitt allowed speedster Angelo Esposito to go over, Keatley making it 24-13.

The task got tougher when Keddie, after a spot by the TMO, was sin-binned for clearing out a ruck with a shoulder charge.

The Dragons had to get through the 10 minutes without any major damage if they were to salvage their Rodney Parade winning run.

A huge Benetton scrum allowed Keatley to slot three points approaching the hour and the Irishman applied the killer blow from the tee after 67 minutes when making it 30-13.

The Dragons have enjoyed being on the right side of some tense finishes since being beaten by Zebre but this encounter was done and dusted… or it should have been.

Benetton gifted their hosts a second try when Hewitt chased Will Talbot-Davies’ kick hard and then Esposito went for a ridiculous offload to allow Talbot-Davies to cross.

Replacement fly-half Arwel Robson added the touchline conversion and the Dragons had something to play for.

That hope was swiftly dashed when a penalty was kicked to the corner and replacement hooker Hame Faiva barged over for the Benetton bonus.

The Dragons responded with a similar effort down the other end – through Dee – but it was a rare, this season at least, pointless evening in Newport.

Dragons: W Talbot-Davies, J Rosser, A Warren, J Dixon (C Edwards 72), A Hewitt, J Botica (A Robson 67), R Williams (captain, L Baldwin 70), J Reynolds (C Maguire 67), E Shipp (E Dee 40), L Fairbrother, J Davies (B Nansen 59), M Screech, H Keddie (L Evans 59), T Basham, O Griffiths.

Scorers: tries – R Williams, W Talbot-Davies, E Dee; conversions – J Botica, A Robson; penalties – J Botica (2)

Benetton: L Sperandio, A Esposito, I Brex, M Zanon, M Ioane, I Keatley (captain), C Trussardi, N Quaglio, T Baravalle, F Alongi, I Herbst, E Snyman, M Lamaro, F Ruzza, T Halafihi. Replacements: H Faiva, F Zani, G Di Stefano, M Fuser, G Pettinelli, L Petrozzi, I McKinley, J Riera.

Scorers: tries – L Sperandio, T Baravalle, A Esposito, H Faiva; conversions – I Keatley (4); penalties – I Keatley (3)

Referee: George Clancy (Ireland)

Argus star man: Ollie Griffiths

Attendance: 1,857