Leinster’s reign as Guinness Pro12 champions appears all-but-over after this damaging defeat in Newport.
Matt O’Connor’s side were seeking a hat-trick of titles but the chase now looks doomed after they surrendered a 22-8 lead at Rodney Parade.
Defeat leaves them locked in fifth place and eight points adrift of reaching the play-offs with just three games remaining. And with Toulon in Marseille looming large on the horizon, Leinster’s season is facing a potential doomsday scenario of being over by mid-April.
Head coach O’Connor said: “Qualifying for the play-offs is now almost definitely out of our hands. We’ve got three games remaining and will try to get as many points as we can but now we have to hope other teams do us a favour.
“We have to find a balance between the league and Europe but that’s the dynamic at this time of the season and something we understand at Leinster. You have to make adjustments and can’t make excuses. We were second best here and Dragons probably deserved to win.
“We were relatively pleased with the first 50 minutes and pretty much in control of the scoreboard. But then we made errors and lost big moments, the yellow card (to try-scorer Ben Te’o) was massive.”
O’Connor was clearly caught between a rock and a hard place. Leinster knew they had to win this game to retain their league ambitions after watching the top four all win.
However the prospect of Toulon is impossible to ignore and Leinster fielded just three of the side that beat Bath to set-up next week’s Champions Cup semi-final in Marseille, Te’o, Jimmy Gopperth and Mike McCarthy.
O’Connor said: “We wanted players to put their hands up for selection. Some took their opportunity, others regressed.”
Those three survivors endured desperately mixed fortunes at Rodney Parade while Shane Jennings failed to make it past the 13th minute, through a head injury.
Te’o was a constant threat yet Leinster’s lapses first allowed Jason Tovey to kick the opening points and then Dorian Jones to kick to the corner from where Rhys Thomas drove over. That was the kick Leinster required.
The rest of the half was a surge of blue jerseys yet errors looked set to leave them frustrated before half-time.
Gopperth sliced the chance to set up an attacking lineout, Jordi Murphy knocked-on and the scrum was penalised for wheeling just five metres from the Dragons line.
Yet Leinster were finally rewarded for their endeavour with two tries in the space of the three minutes before half-time that turned the game on its head.
Te’o combined strength and speed of foot to beat his opposite number and fend a second to touch down. Gopperth struck the post with his conversion but showed a clean pair of heels moments later, beating two defenders with a burst of a pace to cross.
The conversion on the stroke of half-time gave the visitors a 15-8 lead that few could deny. And when Te’o brushed past two defenders to score a try out of nothing on 50 minutes, Leinster were cruising to a bonus-point win.
But Te’o’s shoulder charge on Hallam Amos was costly.
Toby Faletau sparked the Dragons recovery, bursting from a scrum for James Benjamin to score before the Lions No8 blocked Eoin Reddan’s kick for Benjamin’s second, six minutes from time.
DRAGONS – J Tovey; T Prydie, T Morgan, J Dixon, H Amos; D Jones (C Meyer, 53), J Evans; P Price (D Way, 57), R Thomas (capt), B Harris, J Thomas, C Hill (M Screech, 40-47, 52), N Crosswell (J Benjamin, 42), T Faletau, N Cudd.
LEINSTER – Z Kirchner; D Kearney, B Te’o, G D’Arcy, D Fanning (L Fitzgerald, 74); J Gopperth, E Reddan (L McGrath, 76); J McGrath (M Bent, 74), R Strauss (A Dundon, 52-59), M Moore (T Furlong, 59), B Marshall, M McCarthy (R Molony, 62), D Ryan, J Conan, S Jennings (capt, J Murphy, 13).
REF – J Dixon