THE Dragons' hopes of a home knockout clash in the Challenge Cup suffered a hammer blow with a 20-17 defeat to Zebre in Parma.

Dai Flanagan’s men were edged out by their fellow United Rugby Championship strugglers and are now sweating on their place in the last 16.

Defeat means they are unlikely to have a chance to earn a Rodney Parade tie and, depending on other results, they might need to beat the Sharks in Newport to qualify for the knockout stages.

Thankfully they will know exactly what they need to do against the South Africans by the time they kick off at 5.30pm next Sunday.

South Wales Argus: LEAD: The Dragons went 12-0 up through Cai EvansLEAD: The Dragons went 12-0 up through Cai Evans (Image: Huw Evans Agency)

It looked promising when Cai Evans kicked them into a 12-0 lead but Zebre wrestled control of the game thanks to three tries and 20 unanswered points.

Wing Jared Rosser gave the Dragons hope in the final quarter but they had to settle for a losing bonus point.

After starting the campaign with a bonus-point win against Oyonnax, a last-gasp loss in Pau and a narrow defeat in Parma means there is still work to be done.

But this was another missed opportunity – they lacked a killer instinct in the red zone – and the Dragons haven’t won on their travels since beating Pau in the Challenge Cup exactly a year ago.

That means failure to earn a home tie could be costly, just as it was in 2023 when they were battered by Glasgow in the last 16.

The Dragons led 6-0 after 12 minutes courtesy of a pair of penalties by Evans that ensured pressure in the 22 was rewarded.

The Wales full-back, a Six Nations hopeful, was gifted another chance on halfway when Zebre were offside in pursuit of their own kick and he banged over a cracker to make it 9-0 after 17 minutes.

Evans made it a near-perfect first quarter when he knocked over a fourth effort as the Dragons totted up the points to apply scoreboard pressure.

South Wales Argus: Jared Rosser in possession for the Dragons against ZebreJared Rosser in possession for the Dragons against Zebre (Image: Huw Evans Agency)

Zebre needed to respond and did in the 26th minute, moving into the 22 and applying pressure before spreading the ball to the left wing for Simone Gesi to cross for the game’s first try. The conversion was wide.

The Dragons had to stand up to some direct carrying in their 22 by Zebre and they defended their line well only for a penalty to allow Giovanni Montemauri to make cut the gap to four points in the 34th minute.

It was 12-8 at the break but the hosts hit the front soon after the restart when they kicked a penalty into the 22, then won another from the resulting lineout.

They went back to the corner and flanker Iacopo Bianchi was driven over in the 44th minute.

Montemauri converted and Zebre went straight back on the attack with a counter forcing Will Reed to boot out inside his 22.

The Italians rumbled forwards but the Dragons got the turnover then a scrum free-kick to ensure it remained 15-12.

However, Zebre were putting the squeeze on and got their third try in the 52nd minute when a penalty was kicked to the 22 then Gesi finished powerfully to make it 20-12.

Flanagan rang the changes to try and get the momentum back with hooker Bradley Roberts, tighthead Chris Coleman, back rower Ollie Griffiths and scrum-half Dane Blacker joining lock Matthew Screech, who had come on earlier, in entering the action.

A strong carry by Wales number eight Aaron Wainwright led to a shot at goal for Evans in the 55th minute but the full-back missed poorly.

That was followed by club captain Steff Hughes coming on and the Dragons soon got back into the game.

An aerial bomb caused mayhem and they put pressure on in the 22 before Blacker found Rosser on the left, with the winger exploiting some iffy defending to cross.

Evans couldn't add the extras and Zebre kept the Dragons at arms’ length to ensure they keep the heat on the South African pair of the Sharks and Cheetahs at the top of Pool One.

Zebre scorers: tries - S Gesi (2), I Bianchi; conversion - Montemauri; penalty - Montemauri.

Dragons: Cai Evans; Rio Dyer, Aneurin Owen, Harri Ackerman (Steff Hughes 54), Jared Rosser; Will Reed, Rhodri Williams (captain, Dane Blacker 52); Rhodri Jones (Rodrigo Martinez 60), James Benjamin (Bradley Roberts 52), Luke Yendle (Chris Coleman 52), Sean Lonsdale, George Nott (Matthew Screech 46), Dan Lydiate (Ollie Griffiths 52), Harri Keddie, Aaron Wainwright.

Scorers: try - J Rosser; penalties - C Evans (4)