|Paul 15 (7)|
|Tries: Ikpefan, Pinto With: Debaes pen: Desperate|
|Dragons 21 (15)|
|Tries: Hewitt, Clark With: Reed thought: Reed 2, Hanrahan|
Dragons secured their first European victory in three years at French side Pau to boost their Challenge Cup hopes.
The Gwent side have climbed to third in Pool B following their hard-fought 21-15 win at Stade du Hameau.
Tries for Ashton Hewitt and Max Clark canceled out Daniel Ikpefan’s early score to give the visitors a 15-7 half-time lead.
Vincent Pinto crossed for the hosts after the break but Dragons held on to secure a famous European win.
Head coach Dai Flanagan had made four changes to the side beaten by Bulls in the United Rugby Championship, with Taine Basham back in the starting XV, along with fly-half Will Reed, wing Hewitt and prop Rob Evans.
The refresh was needed with Flanagan’s side on a seven-match winless run in all competitions, but they headed to the Pyrenees quietly confident of causing an upset.
Their last victory in Europe came in January 2020 when they beat Russian side Enissey STM in Newport and it looked set to be another difficult European evening for them with Pau’s huge pack destroying the Dragons scrum early on.
That gave the French side impetus from which they took their opportunity by working the ball wide to Ikpefan, who regathered his chip ahead to dive over for the game’s opening score.
Dragons responded well, working their way up field, before scrum-half Lewis Jones’ perfectly timed inside pass found Hewitt who came off his wing to dart in from 20 metres.
The Welsh side had the better of the rest of the first half, taking the game to the hosts, with their hard-carrying forwards making headway before center Clark benefitted to stretch over from close range.
Dragons were in buoyant mood but were caught napping immediately after the break with missed tackles allowing wing Pinto to dive over in the opening minute of the second half.
With their confidence high Pau looked to add to their tally and their scrum dominance gave them many an opportunity in dangerous areas, but errors cost them dearly.
Dragons held firm in defense and were happy to take points when on offer with young fly-half Reed slotting a long-range penalty to keep their opponents at arm’s length.
Replacement JJ Hanrahan slotted a late goal to secure victory before Axel Despres’ last-minute penalty ensured Pau a valuable losing bonus point.
The Gwent side will now finish the pool stages with a match against South Africa’s Lions at Rodney Parade on Sunday, 22 January in the knowledge they are likely to qualify for the knockout stages whatever the result.
The impressive victory in France means they are almost guaranteed a place in the round of 16, with the six highest-ranked clubs in each qualifying pool plus four clubs dropping from the Heineken Champions Cup qualifying.
Dragons head coach Dai Flanagan said: “We controlled loads of that game and there were a few errors which let Pau in but we’re limiting our errors now and are becoming tough and I’m really proud of the group.
“There were a lot of youngsters on the field at the end of the game and for them to see it home with the composure they showed is pleasing. There are elements we can get better at and that excites me.
“I’ve never doubted the character and it’s been about the composure within the game to limit our errors and stick to script. I thought we played some fantastic rugby and Ashton’s try is probably as good as you’ll see.”
Paul: Theo Attissogbe; Vincent Pinto, Yvan Reilhac, Nathan Decron, Daniel Ikpefan; Thibault Debaes, Clovis Lebail (Capt); Siegfried Fisiihoi, Romain Ruffenach, Nicolas Corato, Hugo Auradou, Fabrice Metz, Sacha Zegueur, Thibaut Hamonou, Brent Liufau.
Replacements: Youri Delhommel, Ignacio Calles, Siate Tokolahi, Jimi Maximin, Martin Puech, Alexis Levron, Axel Desperes, Mathias Colombet.
Dragons: Jordan Williams; Rio Dyer, Steff Hughes (capt), Max Clark, Ashton Hewitt; Will Reed, Lewis Jones; Rob Evans, Bradley Roberts, Chris Coleman, Joe Davies, George Nott, Sean Lonsdale, Taine Basham, Ollie Griffiths.
Replacements: Brodie Coghlan, Josh Reynolds, Luke Yendle, Ben Carter, Aaron Wainwright, Che Hope, JJ Hanrahan, Jack Dixon.
Referees: Eoghan Cross (Ire)
Assistants: Jonny Erskine (Ire) and Keane Davison (Ire)
Television match official: Leo Colgan (Ire)