THE Dragons were unable to finish another miserable season on a high in Newport after being outmuscled 28-15 by Guinness PRO14 play-off hopefuls Ulster.

The Rodney Parade region, in their final fixture on home soil after giving up their advantage against the Scarlets for the Judgement Day double-header, were in the contest at just 7-3 down at the break.

But Ulster flexed their muscles to stretch away with three tries – the last when down to 13 men thanks to their power game – and move back into the play-off spots in Conference B.

Ending the season in such an exciting fashion is a pipe dream for the Dragons and their patched-up side are instead ending 2019/20 battling Zebre and the Southern Kings to avoid being the PRO14’s worst side.

They now have a fortnight off before returning against the Ospreys at the Liberty Stadium in what should be a feisty encounter given it is the western region that are at peril in the Welsh Rugby Union’s ‘Project Reset’ rather than the perennial basement dwellers.

Free Press Series: SMASHED: Jordan Williams is tackledSMASHED: Jordan Williams is tackled

Caretaker boss Ceri Jones will hope to have a few more reinforcements for that trip to Swansea after being stretched for their clash with the Ulstermen.

The Dragons already had a lengthy list of back row absentees featuring Wales duo Aaron Wainwright and Ross Moriarty plus the injured Ollie Griffiths, Nic Cudd and Lewis Evans when Harri Keddie limped off inside the opening quarter.

That led to Lennon Greggains joining fellow Wales Under-20s prospect Taine Basham on the field and the pair were excellent in their partnership with the more workmanlike Huw Taylor.

Basham in particular stood out for the Dragons with the teenager from Talywain leading the charge with ball in hand with his dynamism – and getting a deserved consolation try in the closing stages after an earlier penalty try – and making some telling defensive contributions.

However, the Dragons had two young pups in their back row and Ulster had an Ireland powerhouse in Jordi Murphy, a difference that told the story of the afternoon.

While it was a spirited effort, and a dramatic improvement on the Benetton shambles, it was yet another PRO14 disappointment.

Free Press Series: SNARED: Josh Lewis is tackledSNARED: Josh Lewis is tackled

The Dragons needed to respond after a humiliation in Treviso in which they missed a whopping 41 tackles and carried the ball a measly 14 times.

Yet the hosts suffered a pre-match blow when captain Richard Hibbard – who had led the off the field after their warm-up – pulled out with a rib injury.

That led to hooker Rhys Lawrence making his first start since arriving from Ealing last summer and number eight Keddie skippering the team, although he wasn’t to see out the first quarter.

Nonethelss, the loss of their talisman didn’t derail the Dragons and they made a much-needed tenacious start in defence, clearly mindful of the power of the influential Ulster midfield of Stuart McCloskey and Darren Cave.

And their efforts without the ball earned the first points with it when fly-half Josh Lewis banged over a 17th minute penalty from 40 metres after the visitors failed to roll away at the breakdown.

Keddie suffered an injury to his right foot in the build-up to that offence and he didn’t last much longer.

Those that remained on the field were soon chasing the game after Ulster pressure in the 22 eventually told, phase after phase ending with Ireland flanker Jordi Murphy powering over for a score that John Cooney converted.

Lewis was swiftly given a chance to chip away at that lead only to push a relatively simple penalty in the 28th minute and it took superb covering defence by full-back Jordan Williams to deny the visitors a second when he just got back to deny Ireland sevens speedster Robert Baloucoune after a burst down the right.

The Dragons were clinging on yet they finished the half against 14 men thanks to a momentum-swinging moment by the impressive Basham, who snaffled a turnover in his 22 and burst away.

He tried an offload to Lewis, who was tackled early on halfway to earn Cave a 10-minute break either side of half-time.

The Dragons were just 7-3 down as they started the second half but they were staring down the barrel five minutes after the resumption when, after a penalty was kicked to the corner, tighthead Marty Moore cut a nice line to power over for a try that Cooney converted for 14-3.

It got worse when turnover ball was wastefully kicked away by Rhodri Williams and the ball was run back for Cooney to dive over and add the extras for 21-3.

Game over and Ulster had half an hour to turn a four-point haul into five.

Instead it was the Dragons, with a strong wind picking up behind them, that had chances to cross in the 22 only to be hindered by a faltering lineout.

Another charge saw a second Ulster yellow, wing Rob Lyttle for a deliberate knock-on, and the visitors were playing rugby league with 13 when full-back Louis Ludik did the same, an offence that saw South African referee Stuart Berry march under the posts for a penalty try.

At 21-10 and with a numerical advantage the Dragons had a sniff with 10 minutes to go… yet Ulster stripped their game back to carry hard and carry direct for their bonus through captain and lock Alan O’Connor.

The Dragons had the final say through Basham – barging over from a five-metre scrum – but it was the sizeable Ulster contingent that were singing at the final whistle.

Dragons: J Williams; D Howells, A Warren, J Sage, H Amos (T Morgan 54); J Lewis (J Tovey 40), R Williams (T Knoyle 49); B Harris (J Reynolds 77), R Lawrence, L Fairbrother (L Brown 40), J Davies (M Williams 74), M Screech, H Taylor, T Basham, H Keddie (captain, L Greggains 17).

Scorers: tries – penalty try, T Basham; penalties – J Lewis

Ulster: L Ludik; R Baloucoune, D Cave (J Hume 62), S McCloskey, R Lyttle; B Burns (P Nelson 77), J Cooney (D Shanahan 56); E O'Sullivan (A Warwick 63), R Herring (J Andrew 69), M Moore (W Herbst 51), A O'Connor (captain, I Nagle 76), K Treadwell, C Ross (M Rea 63), J Murphy, N Timoney.

Scorers: tries – J Murphy, M Moore, J Cooney; conversions – J Cooney (3), B Burns

Referee: Stuart Berry (South Africa)

Argus star man: Taine Basham