FORMER WALES and Lions hooker Richard Hibbard scored a hat-trick of driving lineout tries but it couldn’t save the Dragons from an Irish whitewash.

Dean Ryan’s side suffered a 30-20 loss to Connacht in an entertaining game at Rodney Parade in which momentum frequently swung until the Irish province’s bench proved to be the difference.

It was level-pegging at 13-13 at half-time after the Dragons fought back strongly from a poor start with Hibbard, who hadn’t scored in 49 previous appearances, scoring a double.

After Connacht hit the front early in the second half, the 37-year-old repeated the trick for a third time, reaping the rewards of throwing accuracy by steering the ship over the line.

However, the Irish side went over for their bonus point just past he hour and then safely saw the game out for a five-pointer to keep alive their hopes of catching Conference A leaders Munster.

Meanwhile, it was a damaging defeat for the Dragons’ bid of reeling in the Ospreys in Conference B – they remain 13 back on the third-placed west Walians.

South Wales Argus: TRY: The Dragons' celebrate a Richard Hibbard tryTRY: The Dragons' celebrate a Richard Hibbard try

It was a beefy effort by the Dragons’ starting pack despite the absence of Wales internationals Elliot Dee, Leon Brown and Aaron Wainwright plus the injured Ross Moriarty and Ollie Griffiths.

They produced produced a determined effort while there was added brawn from the heavyweight midfield of Jamie Roberts and Jack Dixon.

However, the Dragons were let down by their discipline, a horrible habit of compounding mistakes and a lack of creativity or shape in attack.

They showed tenacity but it was the Connacht replacements that made a bigger (positive) impact, with the Irish province bossing the final quarter to turn a tight contest into a professional win.

The Dragons hadn’t beaten an Irish province since Connacht visited Newport in September 2017, a 16-game winless streak, and they had lost heavily to Leinster and Ulster and convincingly to Munster.

They were boosted by the return of fly-half Sam Davies, who missed the three festive derby defeats because of a calf issue.

He kicked the Dragons into a 3-0 lead after three minutes after being the victim of a high tackle by opposite number Jack Carty, who was making appearance 150 for his province.

The Irish fly-half then provided the assist for the opening try after the hosts were put under pressure by a mistake by wing Owen Jenkins, who shanked a clearance straight out.

Connacht made the most of field position to put the pressure on, exploit a missed touch by Davies, earn a penalty that they kicked to the corner and then exploit narrow defence for left wing Matt Healy to go over from Carty’s cross-kick.

South Wales Argus: Harri Keddie on the chargeHarri Keddie on the charge

The Dragons compounded errors again after 15 minutes to concede a second – a free-kick was followed by a scrum to put Connacht into the 22.

They then worked a lineout move to get hooker Shane Delahunt on the charge on a loop and he offloaded to number Abraham Papali’i, who was never going to be stopped by Ashton Hewitt on the line.

Carty’s radar was off and it was only 10-3, giving the Dragons the chance to level when they kicked a 22nd minute penalty to the corner rather than inch closer through Davies’ boot.

They had to settle for making it 10-8 with former Wales and Lions hooker Hibbard at the bottom of a drive over the line on his 50th appearance since heading for Newport from Gloucester.

The Dragons were suddenly on the right side of Welsh referee Craig Evans’ penalty count and turned down shots at goal to try and ramp up the pressure.

That led to a yellow card for tighthead Finlay Bealham, also on his 150th Connacht appearance, and eventually a second for Hibbard down the same right corner after the pack plus centre Jamie Roberts and wing Jenkins had rumbled forward.

Davies mirrored Carty in missing from the tee and it was 13-10 approaching half-time only for the Dragons to shoot themselves in the foot with the clock in the red.

Successive daft penalties at the lineout allowed the visiting number 10 to slot from the tee to level it up.

It was Connacht that were on the front foot after the resumption, forcing wing Ashton Hewitt into touch on the 22 and then earning a penalty to move to within five.

The Dragons defended the drive well but Delahunt peeled off the maul and put scrum-half Caolin Blade over for a try that Carty converted for 20-13.

Back came the hosts through Hibbard with the tried and tested formula, Davies this time converting to make it a seven-pointer.

Yet once again the momentum swung back and Connacht regained their advantage when centre Tom Daly cut a Jamie Roberts line in the 22 to go over, exploiting lead-footed prop Greg Bateman in the defensive line.

Carty converted and the Dragons had just over quarter of an hour to respond again, yet instead it was the Irish fly-half who made it a two-score game for the first time.

His drop goal while playing with penalty advantage made it 30-20 with just 12 minutes to go. Their excellence with the boot meant there was no chance of the Dragons battling back to make it a nervy finale.

They ended in the Connacht 22 but couldn’t force their way over to salvage a pair of consolation bonuses.

Dragons: J Williams; O Jenkins, J Dixon, J Roberts, A Hewitt; S Davies, R Williams (captain); B Harris, R Hibbard, L Fairbrother, B Carter, J Maksymiw, H Taylor, B Fry, H Keddie.

Replacements: E Shipp, G Bateman, C Coleman, J Davies, L Evans, L Baldwin, J Lewis, A Owen.

Scorers: tries – Hibbard (3); conversions – S Davies; penalties – S Davies

Connacht: J Porch; P Sullivan, T Daly, P Robb, M Healy; J Carty, C Blade; D Buckley, S Delahunt, F Bealham, N Murray, G Thornbury, P Doyle (captain), C Oliver, A Papali’i.

Replacements: J Murphy, J Duggan, J Aungier, O Dowling, E Masterson, K Marmion, S O’Brien, A Wootton.

Scorers: tries – Healy, Papali'i, Blade, Daly; conversions – Carty (2); penalty – Carty; drop goals – Carty Referee: Craig Evans (WRU)