Dragons 15 Ulster 8 – Dragons off to a brilliant winning start
FLY-HALF Jason Tovey put the boot into Ulster tonight as Newport Gwent Dragons started life under Lyn Jones with a bang.
The Rodney Parade region, who finished one from bottom of the RaboDirect Pro12 last season, toppled a European heavyweight, who were runners-up last term.
The Dragons didn’t cross for a try but 15 points from the left peg of returning hero Tovey and oodles of guts and determination in defence made it a fantastic start for the new regime.
Ulster won all four games on Welsh soil but were toppled by the home number 10, who passed Ceri Sweeney at the top of the region’s all-time points list in the process.
After the woes of 2012/13, there was a real buzz at Rodney Parade after a summer of positive change.
Jones and his new coaching team had been keeping a lid on expectations, stressing that miracles won’t happen overnight.
Good luck with that after a tremendous night at a raucous Rodney Parade.
The Dragons had a game plan to trouble Ulster, it was just a case of getting enough possession to carry it out.
In truth, that was a problem with the scrum struggling and the lineout wobbling.
There are two solutions to such woes – cold hard cash and good coaching. The Dragons aren’t in a position to use the former and the latter takes time.
But what they did show in abundance was enthusiasm, ferocity at the breakdown and determination to stick in the game against their well-drilled visitors.
Ulster boasted a formidable line-up but were still under-strength compared to the squad that romped to a six-try 46-19 success in Newport last season.
The visitors were without Springboks ace Ruan Pienaar, New Zealanders John Afoa and Nick Williams, Lions Rory Best and Tommy Bowe and Ireland internationals Craig Gilroy, Stuart Olding and Stephen Ferris, presenting the Dragons with a golden opportunity to claim the scalp of a Pro12 big gun.
Being presented with a golden opportunity is one thing, taking it is another, as was shown last season when Glasgow romped to a 60-3 win despite being without their Scotland contingent.
The absentees didn’t prevent Ulster being favourites with the bookies giving them a six-point deficit in the handicap.
But it was the Dragons who started sharply, bossing territory and testing the visitors’ defence with some snappy, precise attacking.
They got their reward when Tovey slotted a sweet drop goal after eight minutes only for opposite number Paddy Jackson to swiftly level with a penalty following a dominant Ulster scrum.
Tovey nudged the hosts back in front only for another familiar problem – defending the driving lineout – to lead to the first try of the evening, Ulster number eight Roger Wilson dotting down.
Jackson was wide with conversion and his radar was off just minutes later with a penalty earned by, you guessed it, a strong scrum.
The Dragons were more than a match for the title hopefuls in open play, with Jack Dixon looking particularly impressive, but they just couldn’t get enough quality possession to put the visitors under stress.
Nonetheless, they headed to the changing rooms just 8-6 down with Jackson struggling from the tee and failing to plunge the dagger in unlike the lethal Pienaar.
And Tovey wasn’t so shoddy when presented with a chance with half an hour left, nailing a 45-metre effort to put the Dragons 9-8 up and go level with Sweeney at the head of the charts.
That would have infuriated the Ulstermen, who twice went close to scoring another try early in the second half with cross-kicks to right wing Andrew Trimble.
And as the game went on, the belief grew among the home faithful, even more so when Tovey claimed the record outright with a penalty on the hour.
That three-pointer had been earned by a Dragons scrum which had improved with the introduction of props Phil Price, from Bridgend, and Francison Chaparro, from the slightly more exotic General Madariaga, Argentina.
Nonetheless it was still Ulster doing all the pressing with the Dragons having to dig deep – and they were rewarded with 10 minutes left when Tovey struck his fifth penalty.
Then came the a period of play that got the Parade crowd on their feet – with the Dragons pinned back in their own 22.
They repelled a driving lineout, then countless pick and drives before winning a scrum penalty, keeping their line intact with sheer determination. That was as close as Ulster got.
Tovey’s left peg put 15 points on the scoreboard but it was the Dragons’ guts that limited Ulster to eight and earned a magnificent win.
Dragons: D Evans, T Prydie, P Leach, J Dixon, H Amos, J Tovey, R Rees; A Coundley (P Price 45), R Thomas, D Way (F Chaparro 45), M Screech (A Jones 56), A Coombs (captain), J Groves (N Talei 56), N Cudd, L Evans.
Scorers: penalties – J Tovey (4); drop goal – J Tovey
Ulster: J Payne, A Trimble, L Marshall, C Farrell (D Cave 56), D McIlwaine, P Jackson (J McKinney 70), P Marshall (I Porter 70), C Black (T Court 56), R Herring, R Lutton (D Fitzpatrick 56), J Muller (captain), D Tuohy (L Stevenson 66), R Diack, C Henry (S Doyle 70), R Wilson.
Scorers: try – R Wilson; penalty – P Jackson
Referee: Claudio Blessano (Italy)
Argus star man: Nic Cudd