2:02pm Sunday 26th January 2014
By Chris Kirwan
NEWPORT GWENT Dragons could well be locking horns with English opposition on a regular basis in the future yet in the present there are fears of a promising season being derailed after a pair of meetings with foes from across the Severn Bridge.
Northampton, like Bath a fortnight earlier, headed to Rodney Parade with their second string yet demolished the region with their power game.
It was a mismatch that brutally exposed the Dragons' flaws up front as the Saints ended their slim hopes of qualification for the LV= Cup semi-finals with a five tries to one, 34-16 victory.
Northampton bossed the Anglo-Welsh encounter with alarming ease and it has been a chastening January for the Dragons, who welcomed 2014 with a lacklustre performance in defeat to Cardiff Blues on New Year's Day.
It would be easy to brush the losses to their English opponents under the carpet given that they are a pair of quality sides that will be playoff semi-finalists, but the severity of the beatings has set alarm bells ringing.
The four regions could head over to the Aviva Premiership because of their spat with the Welsh Rugby Union but at the moment the likes of Bath and Northampton are, both literally and figuratively, in a different league.
They demonstrated strength in depth and competition for places on their travels to Newport; players were given opportunities and grasped them.
Like Jim Mallinder and Mike Ford, Dragons director of rugby Lyn Jones has chopped and changed to give all of his squad a chance in January yet few have shone so far in 2014.
The boss will presently be learning plenty about the character of his charges, perhaps more than when things were going swimmingly in the opening months of the season.
The game followed a similar shape to the 30-20 home defeat to the Saints in 2012/13 with the Dragons heading into half-time with a narrow lead only to be demolished by the visitors' power game.
There was an air of resignation among the home faithful as early as the seventh minute when Northampton didn't just walk the Dragons back at a scrum – it was more a case of jogging them back.
The front row must have been tempted to stay in the changing rooms when the players were forced to race for cover following an incredible hailstorm in the first half that brought a temporary halt to proceedings.
It was a third demolition job of the region in four seasons by the Saints but this was different to the front row schoolings dished out by the likes of Soane Tonga'uiha, Brian Mujati, Alex Waller and Paul Doran-Jones.
The trio that did the damage this time was 21-year-old loosehead Ethan Waller, 22-year-old hooker Mike Haywood and 23-year-old tighthead Gareth Denman; players of promise but pretty raw.
It wasn't just the set piece and driving maul that went wrong, the Saints smashed them at the gain line with number eight Netani Talei the hosts' only really effective runner.
The attack was shapeless until the experienced ex-Wales pair of Richie Rees and Rhys Thomas were called from the bench in the second half to add some direction.
Nor was there the snap and energy in defence that characterised the start of the Jones reign, although in fairness it must be demoralising when being battered up front, and the Dragons were the architects of their own downfall to put themselves into positions of danger.
Northampton scored a penalty try from a five-metre scrum following a charge down of scrum-half Luc Jones' attempted clearance and an awful Talei offload.
A missed tackle by lock Adam Jones on scrum-half Kahn Fotuali'i and a handling error by wing Ross Wardle led to Fa'atoina Autagavaia racing over for the Saints' second.
Fly-half Jason Tovey kicked out on the full to allow Northampton to set up a driving lineout for the third after the restart and a scrum against the head led to Denman cantering over for the fourth.
The visitors' fifth was inevitable from the moment that the lineout was cleanly taken close to the Dragons line, number eight GJ van Velze eventually the man to profit.
The hosts benefited from having a gale at their backs in the first half and that helped them somehow lead 16-15 at the break thanks to Luc Jones sneaking over from close range with the last play.
The wind died down for the second half but that was not enough to save the Dragons from being blown away.
Dragons: D Evans, M Pewtner (R Wardle 10), P Leach, A Smith, W Harries, J Tovey (K Burton 47), L Jones (R Rees 47), P Price (O Evans 50), E Dee (R Thomas 47), N Buck (J Mills 57), C Hill, A Jones (M Screech 36), L Evans (captain), J Benjamin (J Mills 57), N Talei.
Scorers: try – L Jones; conversion – J Tovey; penalties – J Tovey (3)
Northampton: J Wilson, K Pisi, T Stephenson, D Waldouck, F Autagavaia, G Dickson, K Fotuali'i, E Waller, M Haywood, G Denman, R Verbakel, C Day, T Harrison, P Dowson (captain), GJ Van Velze.
Scorers: tries – penalty, F Autagavaia, M Haywood, G Denman, GJ Van Velze; conversions – G Dickson (3); penalty – G Dickson
Referee: Andrew Small (RFU)
Argus star man: R Rees
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