Dragons 19 Wasps 20
THERE should be no sob stories or praise in defeat; that Newport Gwent Dragons lost yet another close encounter shows that the same old failings are frustratingly being repeated.
Three times they have lost narrowly in the Amlin Challenge Cup. Once is unfortunate, twice is maddening, three times is sloppy.
It’s nice to be congratulated and patted on the back for pushing opponents hard but it’s a darn sight nicer to be the ones dishing out patronising praise.
There can be all the compliments in the world for plucky battles but victories are needed and the Dragons have managed just five all season, two of them against Italian part-timers Mogliano.
This time they fell agonisingly short against Wasps, paying the price for missed kicks and late inaccuracies.
Yes, Wasps headed into the game on the back of five wins and are one of the form teams in Europe.
They possessed real talent in their ranks in the shape of Joe Launchbury, Christian Wade, Billy Vunipola and Elliott Daly combined with the experience and nous of Marco Wentzel, Nicky Robinson and Andrea Masi.
They also had something to play for – securing a home quarter-final. The Dragons didn’t.
But the hosts got themselves into a position to win and failed to grasp that opportunity, leaving them to once again ponder what might have been.
What if a couple of penalties had gone over, what if a pair of last-gasp raids had ended in tries rather than knock-ons.
That same old story of gallantly playing with pride but falling short.
The late drama was in stark contrast to a pretty dour first half. It was a subdued start in a subdued atmosphere with the only incident of note a Tom Prydie penalty miss, the full-back making a hideous contact and seeing the ball wobble under the bar from 20 metres.
The Dragons’ kicker, who spent a spell on loan at Wasps last season, made amends to open the scoring from the tee in the 15th minute only for visiting fly-half Nicky Robinson to quickly level.
It was just 3-3 on the scoreboard and there was little on show to warm the shivering crowd with the quality of rugby failing to even get up to average on the ratings scale.
That was until Dan Evans crossed after 25 minutes, the fly-half picking up neatly to finish off a move that came his way via the fingertips of lock Rob Sidoli after a counter-attack featuring Jon Evans, Adam Hughes and Nic Cudd.
Prydie added the extras to make it 10-3 only for Robinson to reduce the gap with a penalty after captain Lewis Evans misjudged an attempted jackal slap bang in front of the sticks, going off his feet to give referee Marius Mitrea the easiest of calls.
The Dragons then used up three ‘get out of jail free’ cards – two penalties misses by former Wales number 10 Robinson and a knock-on over their line after a charge down of a Dan Evans clearance kick, his second of the evening.
The writing was on the wall and it was 13-10 to Wasps approaching the break when their scrum, which had bullied the Dragons throughout the first half, earned a penalty try that Robinson duly converted.
There was still time for Prydie to level it up with the last play and neither side could have headed to the changing rooms feeling they had done enough to have their noses in front.
The Dragons started the second half well with the impressive Cudd cutting a nice line to go close from a lovely Toby Faletau pass before Wasps wing Tom Varndell denied opposite number Will Harries from a Dan Evans crosskick.
The hosts nudged in front through Prydie with half an hour left but it was a lead that was to last just four minutes.
With Faletau in the sin bin, the visitors laid siege to the Dragons’ line and the pressure paid off when Robinson smartly dinked past the defence and won the race to the ball for a personal seven-pointer.
A second shocking Prydie penalty miss meant the score stayed at 20-16 but it was still anyone’s game to win entering the final quarter of an hour.
The crowd were given hope by the spirit of winger Mike Poole, who was showing no ill effects of the hit he suffered while making a tackle seven days earlier in Bayonne.
His poor technique led to him chucking his guts up in the changing rooms in the south of France but he made England prospects feel queasy on his own turf, smashing into lock Joe Launchbury twice and lassoing the dancing feet of speedster Christian Wade another two times.
The game was on a knife-edge but it could have been even closer had Prydie nailed a second successive normally routine penalty.
That led to Steffan Jones being called from the bench and with his first touch he slammed the ball between the sticks to make it 20-19 with five minutes left. But that was as close as they were to come.