It was with an intensity rarely seen in the RaboDirect Pro12 that the Newport Gwent Dragons took to the field at the start of the Friday night Welsh derby against the Scarlets. In a battle of East versus West it was very much the Newport based region that stole a march on their opponents.
The return of British and Irish Lion Toby Faletau to their back row gave them a boost, yet it was the jackeling work of captain Andrew Coombs and flanker Lewis Evans that were giving them the upper hand. Absolutely ferocious at the breakdown they both made a couple of excellent steals to keep their visitors on the back foot.
New signing John Barclay for the Scarlets was keen to make a nuisance of himself and this was the perfect high tempo and physical game for him to make his return from injury. Scarlets captain Rob McCusker and lock George Earle were instrumental in driving the Dragons back as they worked tirelessly to shore up the Scarlets’ defence.
The new half back pairing for the Dragons in the return of fly half Jason Tovey and new signing of scrum half Richie Rees appeared to be decisive for the home side. Rees’ sniping runs and Tovey’s clever tactical kicking kept seeing the Dragons camped in Scarlets territory and the pressure soon told, first through three points from the boot and swiftly followed by a try thanks to the quick offloading hands of prop Chaparro that sent fellow front rower Phil Price over to score. Tovey converted.
The Scarlets were determined to work their way back into the game and a hugely impressive driving maul saw them march their way 30m into the Dragons’ half. Their curse of the season so far continued though in their handling, and some loose control at the breakdown yet again saw them turned over. Their efforts were eventually rewarded by Rhys Priestland kicking for three points.
The Dragons hit back immediately and their pace and precision both on and off the ball was proving to be a problem for the Scarlets. Only a superb cover tackle from Rhys Priestland on wing Tom Prydie denied the Dragons another try. Still camped in the Scarlets’ 22, Toby Faletau almost blew the overlap as Scarlets Lion Jon Davies put in a crunching hit, yet quick recycling and a beautiful delayed pass from Richie Rees saw full back Dan Evans cross unopposed. Tovey again added the extras.
The brutal first quarter seemed to send the Scarlets into a panic as they again kept trying to force passes, and their inclination to try and run the ball out of their own 5m line was only causing them more problems. Full back Gareth Owen departed due to injury on the 20 minute mark, and with Liam Williams restored to the 15 position he soon began to make his telling runs.
Scarlets scrum half Gareth Davies made excellent work of the inside pop pass for Williams to scythe through the Dragons’ defence. The Scarlets support was there to aid him but an excellent Dragons scramble defence did enough to force the error and they were able to clear their lines. The Scarlets continued to batter their way into the Dragons half though and they did enough to return with another three points.
Time and again the Scarlets were breaking through yet the last pass kept going astray allowing the Dragons to relieve the pressure. It was not until Scarlets international centre pairing finally linked up that a lovely timed pass from Jon Davies saw Scott Williams able to cut back inside and dance his way over for a score. Priestland converted.
It was now the Dragons that were finding it hard to match the Scarlets’ tempo and the visitors were relentless in their search for points so that despite the home side’s fantastic start they only entered the break with a four point cushion, leading 17-13.
The frantic pace of the match continued in the second half. The Scarlets were still going strong and they were soon rewarded yet again with fly half Priestland kicking a penalty to take them to within one point of the Dragons.
It looked as though the pressure was going to tell as the Scarlets camped themselves in the Dragons’ 22 yet another miracle pass that wasn’t on saw the ball spill loose and the Dragons able to race down the field and clear their lines. From the quick turnover ball it looked all but certain that the Dragons would score down the wing, only for an exceptional Rob McCusker tackle to prevent it.
With the pressure relieved the Dragons began to work their way back into the game and were able to extend their lead through the boot of Tovey on the 55 minute mark. Again though it was the Scarlets that applied the pressure. A wonderful half break from Rhys Priestland saw the Scarlets break through the Dragons’ defence. Some great handling from their backs saw the ball finally make its way to centre Scott Williams yet agonizingly the last offload that could have set replacement scrum half Aled Davies free couldn’t go to hand.
Each squandered Scarlets chance seemed to give the Dragons more hope and belief that they could see the match out, and they were soon rewarded for their hard work by a long range penalty that was kicked superbly by wing Tom Prydie. It took their lead to seven points and now the pressure was entirely on the Scarlets knowing they needed at least a converted try to draw the game with just ten minutes remaining.
Finally the Scarlets’ main strength, the scrum, came in to play. For the remaining minutes of the match, including the six played after the clock had gone red, saw them camped in the Dragons’ 22 with scrum after scrum, and it seemed that they inevitably had to score. The last scrum of the match however saw the Dragons reverse at such an incredible speed that the Scarlets were unable to keep the ball in the scrum. Aled Davies failed to secure possession and it was star Toby Faletau that managed to snaffle the ball and clear it in to touch.
It was the first time the Dragons had beaten the Scarlets in the since 2008 and the relief and happiness was palpable around Rodney Parade. The injection of new names both on and off the field have clearly made a huge, positive difference to this Dragons side. Their defence and commitment is now such that they are once again a hugely difficult side to beat at home.
For the Scarlets it was another night of frustrating errors. The territory, possession and set piece was all there for them to win the game yet poor handling, easy turnovers and the wrong options saw them squander their chances. When they have composure on the ball they score, they just need to do that with more consistency.
It was a thrilling derby match, full of passion, drama and intensity that truly showcased the talent in Welsh rugby. With the Dragons now having secured their third win in a row at home, they will be hoping to move on to bigger and better things. For the Scarlets the performance of Rhys Priestland and the return of Barclay to action will be big boosts, and a losing bonus point at Rodney Parade was a reward at least for such a committed effort.
Full Time Score: Dragons 23 – 16 Scarlets
Ref: Nigel Owens
Dragons: Dan Evans, Tom Prydie, Ross Wardle, Jack Dixon, Hallam Amos, Jason Tovey, Richie Rees; Phil Price, Rhys Thomas, Francisco Chaparro, Andrew Coombs (capt), Matthew Screech, Jevon Groves, Lewis Evans, Toby Faletau.
Replacements: Hugh Gustafson, Owen Evans, Dan Way, Rob Sidoli, Netani Talei, Jonathan Evans, Kris Burton, Adam Hughes.
Scarlets: Gareth Owen; Liam Williams, Jon Davies, Scott Williams, Jordan Williams; Rhys Priestland, Gareth Davies; Phil John, Ken Owens, Samson Lee, Jake Ball, George Earle, Aaron Shingler, Rob McCusker (capt), John Barclay.
Replacements: Emyr Phillips, Rob Evans, Jacobie Adriaanse, Richard Kelly, Josh Turnbull, Aled Davies, Nic Reynolds, Aled Thomas.