This season has been tough for the Newport Gwent Dragons so far. They had to play the majority of their league games away from home in the first half of the season, meaning they were unable to rely on the vociferous support of the home Rodney Parade crowd. Losses away at Irish giants Munster and Leinster in the opening 2 games was followed by a brief respite with home victories over Aironi and, a fortnight later, over Ulster.
Close defeats in Connacht and Glasgow preceded the first round of LV= Cup games where the Dragons hosted a strong Bath side. Bath overwhelmed the inexperienced Dragons but it hardened the side for a trip to former European Champions London Wasps the following week.
The Dragons went to Wasps as massive underdogs, fielding an extremely young side, including 17 year old Hallam Amos at full back and 16 year old Jack Dixon on the bench. Trailing by 29-27 as the clock ticked past the 80 minute mark Steffan Jones stepped up to kick a penalty with the last action of the match to seal an historic win for the Dragons. Looking to back up their performance in Wycombe the Dragons travelled to Treviso. However, their erratic early season form persisted and they were convincingly beaten by the Italians.
For the second year running the match against the Cardiff Blues at Rodney Parade had to be postponed. An unprecedented torrential downpour in a short spell just before kick-off left the in goal areas submerged despite the best efforts of the groundsmen to clear the surface water. Ultimately the pitch was unplayable and the game had to be postponed.
After the return of their Wales World Cup stars the Dragons began to see their form turn around. This coincided with the start of the Dragons’ Amlin Challenge Cup campaign away at Cavalieri Prato. This time the Dragons returned from Italy with a strong 33-3 bonus point win with tries form Tonderai Chavhanga, Aled Brew, Martyn Thomas, Rob Sidoli and Lewis Evans. The following week saw the Dragons best performance of the season to date, comprehensively beating French powerhouses Perpignan 23-13 at Rodney Parade. The performance was better than the scoreline suggested and the Dragons sat proudly on top of the Pool after the opening rounds.
Coming back into the RaboDirect PRO12 the Dragons travelled to Parc y Scarlets to face the Scarlets with Ashley Smith making his 100th appearance. The Dragons dominated possession and territory at Parc y Scarlets but couldn’t come away with the win that they needed to close the gap on the other Welsh regions in the league table. That result was followed by a disappointing 14-14 draw with Glasgow Warriors where the Dragons again felt they should’ve got a better result.
The initial success that they achieved in their Amlin Challenge Cup campaign was undermined by home and away losses to the Exeter Chief. In the first leg, Exeter’s pack dominated and shut down any chances of the Dragons securing clean ball from which to build sustained attacks. The second leg was in complete contrast to the first, back at Rodney Parade the Dragons dominated the first half but failed to build on it during the second, allowing Exeter back into the game and conceding a last minute try which all but mathematically destroyed their hopes of qualifying for the Quarter Final.
There was a 5 day turnaround for the next game, the first of three league derby games over the festive period, against the Cardiff Blues at the Cardiff City Stadium. The Dragons lost out in Cardiff and again in another tight fixture against the Scarlets a week later. The third derby game was against the Ospreys at Rodney Parade. A tight match was won by the Dragons but the result was only decided in the final play when a Dan Biggar drop goal for the Ospreys hit the inside of the post and was cleared to touch to secure a 21-20 win for the Dragons.
The Dragons played well in their final two Amlin Challenge Cup games, despite being plagued by a huge injury list. In Perpignan, the Dragons had to include front rower Hugh Gustafson on the bench as back row cover and against Prato hooker Sam Parry was also on the bench covering second row. The Dragons lost in Perpignan but were within a score of their hosts until a final minute converted try settled it at 27-13. The following week the Dragons put Prato to the sword with a 7-try 45-16 demolition to round off their European campaign.
Next up were the final two rounds of the pool stage of the LV= Cup and the Dragons still harboured a slim mathematical chance of qualifying for the semi final for a second year running. First they faced the Ospreys in the first Welsh derby to be played at the Brewery Field in Bridgend in 8 years. Both teams fielded youthful sides however the conditions prevented anyone from really shining and although there were 6 tries scored the game was fairly scrappy with the Ospreys coming out 26-21 winners.
Other results meant that going into the home game against Saracens the following week there was still that mathematical chance of qualifying, however it was even slimmer than before. Freezing conditions in the week leading up to the match beat the attempts to protect the pitch. Covers were laid down on the Monday before the game and right up to the day before it looked as if the efforts would pay off, however, temperatures falling to -8°C the night before the game left the pitch unplayable. The organising committee initially awarded the game to Saracens with a bonus point 20-0 win, however this was overturned by an appeal hearing and the match was deemed a 0-0 draw.
Ravenhill is usually one of the Dragons’ more fruitful away venues and the Dragons dominated for large spells against Ulster. Ruan Pienaar, as he so often does, orchestrated a clinical Ulster victory as they scored 4 tries in two short spells at the end of each half whilst the Dragons failed to cross the try line once as their lack of cutting edge was exposed.
Returning to Rodney Parade and in need of a victory against an Edinburgh side who had made the Heineken Cup quarter finals but were in a similar position in the league the Dragons turned on the style, cruising to a 21-10 victory that could well have been more comprehensive but for a number of small errors in the final third.
This win sparked a spell of form for the Dragons as they backed up their success with a win away in Aironi and at home against the Cardiff Blues, Tonderai Chavhanga scoring a stunning solo try from the half way line to secure the 18-14 victory. Better followed when they won in Edinburgh by 29-15, in the process recording back to back away wins for the first time since 2006.
The Dragons were brought back to earth however, with home losses to Connacht and Treviso, both in front of record Rodney Parade crowds for both matches against both sides. This was followed by a 31-12 defeat at the Liberty Stadium in Shane Williams' final home match for the Ospreys. The Dragons were within a score until the final 2 minutes when the Ospreys scored 2 quick fire tries to extend the lead.
The final game of the season was at home against PRO12 leaders Leinster. Despite a brave comeback from the Dragons, Leinster prevailed 22-18.
The Dragons finished 9th in the RaboDirect PRO12 and were very competitive in their tough Amlin Challenge Cup Pool. Whilst not achieving the results they would've hoped for, the Dragons brought through a number of younger players in 2011/2012. The likes of Sam Parry, Lewis Robling, Steffan Jones and 17 year olds Hallam Amos and Jack Dixon have all been exposed to PRO12 regional rugby and hopefully bodes well for 2012/2013.