Spirited Scarlets comeback not enough as Dragons stand firm
THE Scarlets have held a vice-like grip on this fixture in recent years, but a fired-up Dragons released it in stunning fashion in a breathless regional derby at Rodney Parade.
In a nerve-wracking finale, the Scarlets almost snatched a draw only to mess up an attacking scrum with the home eight creaking.
But overall, Simon Easterby's side could have few complaints with the result with east holding sway over west for the first time in 11 matches between the two regions.
The Scarlets never recovered from the opening 20 minutes which saw the home side storm into a 17-3 lead.
And although they hauled themselves back into the contest thanks to the boot of Rhys Priestland and a well-worked try by Scott Williams, it was the unerring kicking of Dragons wing Tom Prydie that saw the Men of Gwent home.
Amid all the controversy surrounding the future of the Heineken Cup and the Welsh regions, this was a stirring advertisement for the domestic game, with the Dragons transformed from the outfit that finished one off the bottom of the Pro12 table last season.
For the Scarlets, Liam Williams and Jonathan Davies were constant threats and their scrum was again a weapon, but they conceded far too many turnovers and despite late pressure had to be content with a losing bonus point for their efforts.
The Llanelli-based side had headed down the M4 to Newport in far better spirits following their 26-10 victory over Treviso in round two, while the return to the starting XV of Lions centre Davies and the inclusion of Scotland flanker John Barclay for his debut provided an extra lift.
Easterby was forced into a late change, however, with goal-kicker Steve Shingler — who didn't miss a kick in his first two matches — a late withdrawal because of an Achilles niggle. It meant Gareth Owen was restored to the No.15 jersey and Aled Thomas drafted in onto the bench.
Under new management, the Dragons had enjoyed an encouraging start to the new campaign with head coach Lyn Jones able to recall his own Lions star Toby Faletau as well as Wales lock Andrew Coombs.
And it was the home side who took an early lead with Prydie landing a monster penalty after George Earle had been penalised for not rolling away at a ruck.
Playing with a real ferocity to their game, the Dragons tore into the Scarlets and it rattled the visitors to the core in what proved a frenetic but hugely entertaining opening half.
It needed a brilliant cover tackle by Priestland on Prydie to deny the former Osprey in the corner after seven minutes, but after the Wales No. 10 was charged down by Faletau, the Dragons pounced for their opening try.
It was one for the front-row union collection with Argentinean tight-head Francisco Chaparro off-loading brilliantly for loose-head Phil Price to plunge over on his 50th start for the region.
Prydie converted from wide out, then Priestland put the Scarlets on the board with a close-range penalty.
The Scarlets, though, made the criminal error of failing to clear the lines from the restart and after being caught in possession they surrendered a second try, with full-back Dan Evans racing over against his former team-mates.
Prydie was again on target with the extras and the home side were off their feet with only a quarter of the match gone.
The Scarlets had spent the first two games sitting on early first-half leads, this time they were forced to respond quickly and they managed to get themselves back into the match at the end of a breathless first half.
Priestland landed a second penalty after a good break by hooker Ken Owens, then the visitors struck with a well-worked score.
Davies had been at the heart of the Scarlets efforts all night — in attack and defence — and it was his switch with midfield partner Scott Williams that opened up a stretched Dragons defence on 33 minutes.
The Wales international still had a bit to do, but showed good pace and a step to beat Richie Rees for the score.
Priestland converted and the Scarlets were right back in the match, 17-13 at the interval.
While Easterby would have been pleased with the resolve shown by his side, he would have demanded far more composure in the second period.
An error by Chaparro allowed Priestland to step up for another successful kick five minutes after the restart, with the fly-half silencing the boos to bring his side to within a point.
And the Scarlets should have moved in front shortly after.
A searing break from the outstanding Liam Williams scythed open the Dragons defence, but when it looked like the Scarlets had men over out wide, Priestland spilled the ball ten metres out.
Priestland was wide with a mammoth penalty attempt from 52 metres out, but Prydie made no mistake when given his chance.
The second half was following a similar pattern to the first, but the Dragons were unable to make their possession and territory pay.
And when the Scarlets managed to get hold of the ball, they were guilty of coughing up the ball in promising positions.
Another superb Prydie penalty made it 23-16 with 11 minutes to go and despite late scrum pressure from the visitors, the Dragons were able to somehow hold on for a deserved win.