Dragons 14 Munster 18
NEWPORT Gwent Dragons were denied the scalp of another RaboDirect Pro12 title hopeful after being punished by the right boot of Munster fly-half Ian Keatley.
The Dragon went toe to toe with the league leaders at Rodney Parade and were scenting another notable victory when a Jason Tovey drop goal inched them 14-12 in front entering the final stages.
But while Munster no longer have O’Gara, Stringer, Wallace et al, they still know how to burgle the points.
And their number 10 showed nerves of steel at the death, his late brace meaning the Dragons had to be content with a losing bonus point.
There was plenty to be admired from their tenacious performance and their line wasn’t breached by the table-toppers.
The back row of Lewis Evans, Nic Cudd and Netani Talei was superb, centre Ross Wardle impressed again while wing Matthew Pewtner scored a try and is showing signs of real improvement.
But a golden opportunity went begging at Rodney Parade after a yellow card for the Irish visitors strangely stirring Munster into action in the final quarter rather than prompting the hosts to press ahead.
That will frustrate director of rugby Lyn Jones, whose side could very well have added another scalp to the three Pro12 semi-finalists – Ulster, the Scarlets and Glasgow – that they have turned over this season.
The Dragons headed into the game on the back of a stunning win and Jones selected the same 23 that had triumphed at Scotstoun Stadium.
Munster boss Rob Penney, ahead of their crunch Heineken Cup double-header against Perpignan, rang the changes following his side’s 31-10 drubbing of Cardiff Blues.
Nonetheless they still fielded the imposing figure of Ireland and Lions great Paul O’Connell in their second row.
The visitors started strongly, bossing possession and shifting the ball well to deal with the Dragons’ impressive line speed and ‘in your face’ defence.
The hosts kicked what little ball they had away yet the left boot of in-form fly-half Jason Tovey meant that they were the first to strike, his 12th-minute penalty making it 3-0.
The 24-year-old then shanked another effort from the same spot but nearly made amends with a searing 40-metre run from inside his own half only for the attack to fizzle out in the absence of support.
And the Dragons paid the price for failing to add to their tally when they went off their feet in front of their own sticks to give Munster fly-half Ian Keatley the simplest of levellers approaching the half hour.
The hosts then began to trust their hands with wing Will Harries stressing the Irishmen’s defence with a couple of jinking breaks.
And the Dragons sneaked a 6-3 lead at the break when some Munster ambition – running the ball from the last play from inside their own half – backfired with a penalty for holding on that Tovey impressively banged over from 50 metres.
Good end to the first half, good start to the second.
The Dragons went 11-3 up swiftly after the restart when, after powerful surges by centre Ross Wardle and Hill, a delightful pass by Talei allowed wing Matthew Pewtner to scorch over down the right.
The winger has come on leaps and bounds over the last few weeks and his gas was invaluable just minutes later, the 22-year-old catching opposite number Denis Hurley five metres shy of the line when a fast response seemed inevitable.
But Munster, who were grateful for Tovey being off target with the conversion and a penalty, did reduce the deficit with a sweetly-struck Keatley three-pointer to make it 11-6 entering the final quarter.
The Dragons were presented with a golden opportunity when Ireland centre Keith Earls was sin-binned for a high tackle on Dan Evans.
However, it was the visitors that stepped it up and Keatley made it 11-9 before it became 14 versus 14 following a yellow card when lock Cory Hill failed to retreat 10 metres.
And the Irish fly-half made no mistake when presented with an opportunity to make it 12-9 with 10 minutes left – somehow the Munstermen were leading... but not for long.
Tovey made up for his earlier errors from the tee by nailing a drop goal from on the 22, only for it to swing back to the visitors via a booming Keatley effort from inside his own half.
And he was to have the final say with another lovely effort, condemning the Dragons to their second home loss of the season.
Dragons: D Evans, M Pewtner, P Leach, R Wardle, W Harries, J Tovey, R Rees (W Evans 78), O Evans (A Coundley 72), S Parry (E Dee 78), F Chaparro (D Way 65), C Hill, R Sidoli (captain, M Screech 77), L Evans, N Cudd, N Talei.
Scorers: tries – M Pewtner; penalties – J Tovey (2); drop goal – J Tovey Munster: F Jones; G van den Heever (I Dineen 66), K Earls J Downey D Hurley; I Keatley D Williams (C Sheridan 74); D Kilcoyne (J Cronin 76), M Sherry (D Varley 45), S Archer (BJ Botha76); D O'Callaghan, P O'Connell (I Nagle 66) B Holland (captain), CJ Stander, J Coughlan (B O’Mahony 50).
Scorers: penalties – I Keatley (6) Referee: Marius Mitrea (Italy)
Argus star man: Netani Talei