1:02pm Sunday 12th January 2014
By Chris Kirwan
BE thankful for small mercies; humiliation looked on the cards for Newport Gwent Dragons when impressive number eight Leroy Houston raced over for Bath's fourth try after just 31 minutes.
The score in the Amlin Challenge was 27-3 and things had the potential to get ugly.
Thankfully there was to be no repeat of last season's 60-3 battering at the hands of Glasgow, although that was partly down to the visitors getting the job done before enjoying their half-time oranges.
The Dragons improved after the break while Bath clocked off, content with a 'mere' 30-13 routine victory to secure Pool Two top spot and a quarter-final berth.
Because it was the Amlin and because Bath were all but in the last eight, the English side headed to Rodney Parade with their second string.
Thank goodness their coaches saw fit to make 12 changes and give the weekend off to so many of their big boys.
It saved the Dragons a mauling that might have overshadowed what has been a pretty encouraging first half of the campaign.
They have ruffled a few feathers under Lyn Jones' stewardship and sit sixth in the RaboDirect Pro12 but they are still some way short of being able to topple the top sides.
If somehow the spat between the WRU and the regions does lead to an Anglo-Welsh league then a big investment would be needed to go up against English juggernauts week in, week out or the Championship would beckon.
But Bath didn't just have the nudge on up front, they were also smarter and more threatening in open play, aided by what was comfortably the Dragons' worst performance of the campaign.
The region has made real strides this season but the lapsed into the bad habits that made it a shocking 2012/13.
Their line speed was sluggish, they missed tackles and made bad defensive choices while they were far too lateral in attack and coughed up the ball with alarming regularity.
They were meek rather than tenacious.
The Dragons, whose preparations were hindered by illness, have shipped just 15 tries in 12 games in the Pro12 and have conceded a solitary bonus point yet Bath cruised over the whitewash four times in the first half.
Scrum-half Micky Young exploited shambolic defence to snipe over, wing Tom Biggs won the race to a chip through, ex-Scarlets flanker Mat Gilbert crossed after some appalling tackling and then Houston galloped free.
To make matters worse the Dragons suffered injuries to in-form fly-half Jason Tovey (knee) and Wales lock Andrew Coombs (broken nose) and wing Tom Prydie (ankle), who was making his return after suffering a hamstring injury on international duty.
The Dragons could only muster a pair of penalties by Steffan Jones in the first half but edged matters after the break, albeit against a side that had got the job done.
Diminutive Flanker Nic Cudd had a tough afternoon against the Bath big men but at least managed to cross the whitewash with half an hour left after a tenacious Dan Evans break.
Errors galore meant the game drifted to its end, although after watching through their fingers for 31 minutes most home fans would have settled for that.
There were no positives to take from a shocking display but the improvements made this term – especially on their own turf – mean that the Dragons have enough credit in the bank to be able to claim it was just a blip.
"Bath had a really good patch and were too good for us," admitted hooker Rhys Thomas afterwards. "They've got a strong squad and mixed it up.
"There's no shame in being put to the sword by a really good team and we can learn a lot from that."
With Northampton next up at Rodney Parade they had better learn quickly.
Newport Gwent Dragons: D Evans, M Pewtner, R Wardle, A Smith, T Prydie (P Leach 23), J Tovey (S Jones 20), R Rees (L Jones 66), O Evans (H Gustafson 60), R Thomas (E Dee 66), N Buck (D Way 51), A Coombs (captain, M Screech 7-15, 33), R Sidoli, J Groves (N Cudd 66), N Cudd (I Jones 55), T Faletau.
Scorers: try – N Cudd; conversion – S Jones; penalties – S Jones (2)
Bath: A Watson (M Banahan 35-40), R Lane (M Banahan 65), G Henson, O Devoto (J Joseph 59), T Biggs, T Heathcote, M Young (M Roberts 70), P James (captain, K Palma-Newport 59), E Guinazu, J P Orlandi (A Perenise 40), D Day (G Mercer 64), R Caldwell, M Gilbert (M Garvey 55), Fearns, L Houston.
Scorers: tries – M Young, T Biggs, M Gilbert, L Houston; conversions – T Heathcote (2); penalties – T Heathcote (2)
Referee: Laurent Cardona (France)
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