MANCHESTER United will be in town next Sunday but there was no magic of the cup for the Dragons against the Sharks at a sodden Rodney Parade.

Dai Flanagan’s men headed into the Challenge Cup clash with the aim of securing a home tie in the last 16 by making it four wins on the spin in Newport.

However, they were beaten 29-9 by their South African visitors and will now watch on jealously when the knockout stages start on the first weekend of April.

The Sharks scored four tries to none and will now, as top seeds, enjoy home advantage in Durban.

The Dragons had the better of the first half but could only manage a pair of Cai Evans penalties, with a Jared Rosser try chalked off after the winger failed to follow a wonderful break with a finish when sliding to ground his own kick ahead.

They paid the price for that with a quickfire double by Springbok World Cup winners approaching the break with scores by scrum-half Jaden Hendrikse and loosehead Ox Nche earning a 12-6 lead.

With the rain lashing down, it stayed that way until Evans made it 12-9 on the hour but the Sharks sealed the win when lock Gerbrandt Grobler went over from a driving lineout with 10 minutes to go.

He was followed over by Le Roux Roets and Werner Kok against a demoralised Dragons.

Despite the scoreline, this was a third missed opportunity of the group stages against an uninspiring Sharks side who prop up the United Rugby Championship.

They headed to Newport with the carrot of ensuring knockout rugby in Durban and fielded four World Cup winners in their XV – centre and captain Lukhanyo Am, wing Makazole Mapimpi, scrum-half Jaden Hendrikse and prop Nche.

Yet the Dragons stood up to their tight game for much of the evening and will lament their failure to build a commanding lead before their visitors’ double approaching half-time.

There were promising performances from youngsters Ryan Woodman and Harri Ackerman at blindside and centre respectively while Leon Brown did well at the scrum against the formidable Nche to head into the Six Nations in high spirits.

However, it was a defeat that pretty much kills off the season with the Dragons now playing to avoid being bottom of the URC and the Welsh Shield.

South Wales Argus: ATTACK: Aaron Wainwright on the charge for the Dragons against the SharksATTACK: Aaron Wainwright on the charge for the Dragons against the Sharks (Image: Huw Evans Agency)

The Dragons struck first when the Sharks were offside in their 22, allowing Wales full-back Evans to knock over a seventh-minute penalty in his final game before Six Nations duty.

He could have repeated the trick after ten minutes but scrum-half Dane Blacker – with admirable but probably misplaced intent – went for a quick tap and the attack fizzled out.

The Dragons then should have gone 10-0 up but blew two tries in one move.

First Blacker sniped at a close-range ruck but his scoring pass was picked off and cleared to the home 22, where Jared Rosser escaped, kicked and won the race to the ball that was on the line.

However, the winger failed to ground the ball cleanly and, after Evans had kicked the conversion, the TMO intervened and referee Adrien Marbot chalked off the try. It was a close, and some felt harsh, call.

It was 6-0 in the 22nd minute after another Sharks offside and the Dragons, as they did in defeat at Zebre eight days earlier, had got their rewards of a strong start from the tee.

The hosts were the much better side in the first half… yet trailed after 36 minutes.

The Sharks made a line break and then put the power on in the 22 before scrum-half Hendrikse dotted down from a yard out, Curwin Bosch adding the simple extras to make it 7-6.

How the Dragons responded was key, and they failed to reassert themselves.

The Sharks kicked penalties to the 22, then went with a quick tap from the final play of the half with loosehead Nche smashing his way over for a 12-6 lead at the break.

The Dragons had to put the frustration behind them – they were very much still in with a shot at turning it around for qualification.

Wales back rower Taine Basham was introduced for Ollie Griffiths for the second half as the weather deteriorated, the rain making a racket on the old roof of the stand on Rodney Road.

This was weather for putting boot to ball – the scenario of the Dragons progressing by scoring four tries in a draw was off the table.

The first score of the second half came in the 60th minute when the hosts got a driving lineout rumbling into the 22 and earned a penalty that Evans knocked over.

Wisely, the Dragons didn’t get too desperate, too early to hunt a try.

However, they were left needing a miracle when back-to-back penalties allowed the Sharks into their 22 for a driving lineout try, Grobler the man to go over for a 17-9 lead.

The visitors went for the kill and, after loosehead Rodrigo Martinez was sin-binned, the bonus came when Le Roux Roets powered over from close range.

They twisted the knife with the final play when Grant Williams burst away, kicked through and Evans made a mess of grounding the ball to gift Kok his usual five-pointer against the Dragons.

Dragons: C Evans; Dyer, S Hughes (captain), Ackerman (Westwood 72), J Rosser; Reed (E Rosser 72), Blacker (R Williams 50); R Jones (Martinez 50), B Roberts (Benjamin 59), Brown (Yendle 66), J Davies, Screech, Woodman (Young 66), Griffiths (Basham 40), Wainwright.

Scorers: penalties – Evans (3).

Sharks scorers: tries – Hendrikse, Nche, Groblerz, Roets, Kok; conversions – Bosch (2).

Referee: Adrien Marbot (France)

Attendance: 3,835.