THE Dragons headed to Ashton Gate with the aim of making it to the semi-finals of the European Challenge Cup for the fourth time but their season was ended in stunning style by a Bristol side that ran in seven tries in a 56-17 hammering.

The men from Rodney Parade started excellently to enjoy a 10-0 lead courtesy of a well-worked try by Ashton Hewitt, with the winger finishing superbly after fielding a cross-kick, and five points from the boot of Sam Davies.

But the Bears responded with tries by Nathan Hughes and Ben Earl (2) to lead 24-10 at the break and then they eased away through Fijian superstar Semi Radradra’s early score.


Captain Rhodri Williams gave the Dragons slim hope but Bristol made the scoreboard look ugly with three more tries in the closing stages through Chris Vui, Max Malins and Dan Thomas.

Here are the talking points from the quarter-final clash…

South Wales Argus: OPENER: Ashton Hewitt crossesOPENER: Ashton Hewitt crosses


Those who just see the score when flicking through Friday results will presume it was a one-sided battering.

That isn’t entirely true despite the Bears being comprehensive winners.

The Dragons started really well in the West Country to force Bristol into handling errors with their aggressive defence.

A good kick chase won the opening score from the tee and then a cracking try straight from Ystrad Mynach gave hope of adding the Bears to Brive, Cardiff Blues and Gloucester as quarter-final scalps.

Davies’ kick to the left wing from lineout ball was inch perfect, Hewitt’s finish when dancing past Charles Piutau was wonderful.

The Dragons were 10-0 and had executed their game plan to perfection.

“Credit to the Dragons and Dean, they certainly got into us in the first 10 to 12 minutes,” said Bristol boss Pat Lam.

“We made five errors and gave away silly penalties - they put us under pressure. They caused a few issues at the beginning and we were just messy.”

But then…

South Wales Argus: DOUBLE: Ben Earl was man of the matchDOUBLE: Ben Earl was man of the match


Bristol just aren’t normal. They offer no chance to breathe.

Dragons boss Dean Ryan knew that before the game and warned at his Tuesday press conference that staying composed when the Bears have their magic moments would be key.

Being warned is one thing, staying calm when they are ‘on’ is another.

Bristol don’t give the chance to reset – they claim restarts and run, they put the squeeze on through shifting the ball rather than with box-kicks and an aerial game.

They also do the dirty work – how good is lock Chris Vui? – that allows their superstars to shine.

The Dragons went from 10-0 up after a quarter to being 24-10 down and clinging on after tries by Nathan Hughes and Ben Earl (2), every one a cracker.

Then at the death Bristol had the win in the bag at 37-17 but hit the gas one more time through Vui, Malins and Thomas.

Saracens are relentless and in your face, Exeter get teams in a choke hold, Bristol have spells of rugby joy.

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That was arguably the strongest XV that the Dragons have fielded for years… a statement that will make some members of Paul Turner’s teams scoff.

On paper, that was a line-up that was able to mix it with the Bears with nine internationals, a couple who have been involved in Test camps and a handful of Lions contenders.

What they didn’t have was the slickness that comes through playing together after Ryan opted against using the Guinness PRO14 derbies as a tune-up.

The director of rugby chose to try and get his best XV through to Ashton Gate safely and he achieved that.

A negative of that decision was a lack of cohesion compared to a Bristol side who had played seven Premiership fixtures (and have had several years working under Lam).

Through playing together the Dragons can hopefully develop some of the gnarl that was a trademark of Turner’s teams, because tightness, togetherness and fight is as important as talent.

It’s also evident at the top level that Ryan is without a totemic lock, showing why the Dragons are keen on Wasps’ Wales international Will Rowlands.

The tight five was creaking in the second half at Ashton Gate; Ryan could have done with Greg Bateman and Aaron Jarvis as prop replacements.

The reality is that the Champions Cup draw will throw up more big challenges for 2020/21 and the region will want to show signs of progress.

South Wales Argus: BACK: Jordan Williams celebrates with Ashton HewittBACK: Jordan Williams celebrates with Ashton Hewitt


They didn’t have the impact that they would have liked but it was terrific to see Jordan Williams and Josh Lewis back in action after serious knee injuries.

Williams was a surprise starter after 10 months out while Lewis replaced him for the closing stages after being out since last pre-season, with his last game being the 2019 Judgement Day win against the Scarlets.

Both will add real value to the Dragons squad in 2020/21.

The side-stepping full-back didn’t get too many opportunities to stretch his legs – Bristol knew all about his threat after a spell at Ashton Gate – but he remains the region’s most dangerous broken-field runner.

Lewis can put the pressure on Davies for the 10 jersey - the playmaker needs to be pushed if he wants to get to a level that puts him in the Wales mix - and could also be an option at 15 if a strong kicking game is required.

The new season starts in a fortnight with a tough trip to champions Leinster and both Williams and Lewis will be welcome options.