Touts were selling tickets for this match ahead of a rare sellout for a regional game. Locked gates used to be the norm in Wales on 26 December, when local derbies abounded and forwards used to take Boxing Day literally. But the padlocks have long rusted.
Welsh rugby is now dominated and financially driven by the national side, and a new funding mechanism for the four regions is designed to take the inflationary pressure off them by capping the wages for the 38 players in the Wales squad who are divided into pay bands.
It means the Dragons No 8, Ross Moriarty, who joined from Gloucester two years ago, faces a wage cut of 40% unless he moves back to England, but the system gives the quartet an incentive to sign current international players. It should also give a financial stimulus to the Dragons, who have long been regarded as the runt of the regional litter, operating on a budget some way below the rest.
The Dragons have earned respect since Dean Ryan became director of rugby in the close season. A soft touch no longer, they dominated the Blues at forward here, but lacked the options of the home side behind, where they were overly reliant on Sam Davies.
The Blues, prompted by Jarod Evans, whose eye for a gap fixed the Dragons’ defence, had more variety and the opening try of the game was a model of simplicity. Evans stepped into space and the flanker Shane Lewis-Hughes finished off but, in contrast, the Dragons struggled to evade contact and operated off slower possession.
They did score the game’s next two tries, after Evans’s 29th-minute penalty had extended the Blues’ lead to 10 points. The Dragons looked like going into the interval scoreless but they won a penalty at a scrum on halfway and Davies kicked the ball to within five metres of the Blues’ line.The throw set up a driving maul and Taine Basham, a flanker who was the heartbeat of his side, was driven over.
Basham was behind the move that gave the Dragons the lead four minutes after the restart. Evans had just hit the bar with a penalty from the halfway line and the Blues had worked space on the right when Josh Navidi’s pass to Rey Lee-Lo was read by Basham, who only had 70 metres to go.
He covered 50 before being caught by Evans, the two most influential players on the field colliding. The Blues were still regrouping when the second row Matthew Screech took the outside route to the line.
The Blues had the wind and patiently used it to gain position. Penalties from Evans and his replacement, Jason Tovey, gave them an advantage that proved enough against improved but still limited opponents.