After the daylight trauma of their opening home game against Leinster, the Dragons now re-appear under the cover of night to host Connacht on Friday. Geraint Powell says darkness has always served rugby well in Gwent . . . and can do so again.
Whisper it ever so quietly – for you don’t want to risk sarcastic comments from the direction of Carmarthenshire about not needing any daylight, for the only “passing” in Gwent was when the ball went to the back of a driving maul – but top flight rugby in the eastern region has always been best played at dusk, or better still, in the dark.
Abertillery Park and Pontypool Park may be two of the most beautiful natural amphitheatres in Welsh club rugby but, in rugby terms, the stuff played there was not always renowned as beautiful and both banks were best viewed from the stands at the other side in an evening match.
For then there was pitch blackness, beyond the crowd on the terracing and the reach of the floodlights. Venues that could be beautifully welcoming on a Saturday afternoon were simply intimidating in the darkness of a Wednesday evening.
The same feeling for away fans was engendered by that other less rural but even steeper terracing, at Eugene Cross Park in Ebbw Vale. The same considerations apply to Rodney Parade, that urban equivalent at the mouth of Gwent’s River Usk. Whatever one’s views on Newport rugby, there is an almost universal acceptance that Rodney Parade is “a proper rugby ground”.
In the olden days, before national leagues, Pooler mostly travelled down to Newport either on a Wednesday evening in September or on a Saturday afternoon in April (the fixtures alternating). The September midweek evening away trip was always the hard one, the Black and Ambers always seemingly more up for that match even during the best of the Ray Prosser glory years at their rivals.
The Saturday sunshine in April was less able to create an intimidating atmosphere against Pooler players and fans alike, despite the best efforts of the home support.
New Dragons head coach Bernard Jackman wishes to transform Rodney Parade. If not yet into a fortress, for he does not yet have the playing squad for that, although it will come with time, then at least as an away venue where visiting teams would very much rather be somewhere else. And, by the early 2020s, the plan is they would rather be anywhere else.
This evolution really begins on Friday evening, with the visit to the Gwent region of the Connacht province. This won’t be the false dawn of the visit of the powerful Leinster province, in the glorious Saturday afternoon sunshine.
That was, in itself, another conspicuous non-alignment in Welsh rugby, reminding us all that there is still much structural modernisation ahead.
This Friday evening, followed by a Saturday evening two weeks later against the Southern Kings of Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, is when and where it begins. Both are winnable matches, let alone merely competitive enough to tweak the interest of the casual.
Connacht, the 2015-16 Pro14 champions, put up a good fight against Dave Rennie’s powerful Glasgow before going down 12-18 on the opening weekend. Another home match saw them comfortably defeat the Southern Kings 32-10 in round two.
They are a good team, as you would expect under the better-funded small country Irish provincial rugby model. They have recruited astutely in new head coach Kieran Keane, formerly an assistant to Rennie at the Chiefs regional franchise in New Zealand, and centre Bundee Aki is always a threat to any defence. Good, but not unbeatable.
It will be interesting to see how many rugby fans across the region dip their toes in the regional waters at this very early stage, or whether much more missionary work and engagement will be needed before even the mildly alienated and indifferent begin to thaw.
One thing is for certain, the process of regional engagement has begun under head coach Bernard Jackman, chief executive Stuart Davies and Welsh Rugby Union CEO Martyn Phillips. There will be no turning back, for the Rubicon has finally been crossed. Julius Caesar did not dither at the river bank for 14 years, in contrast to some in Welsh regional rugby.
If there was any remaining doubt, the arrival of Cwmbran-raised Just Eat Plc co-founder David Buttress as chairman – and his opening comments on rectifying the alienation/affinity issues across the region – means there are no more. Those who still perceive the Dragons as a Newport “super” club clearly don’t have any diehard Newport club fans as close friends or acquaintances.
For those Newport club fans with no interest in regional rugby, it has been a particularly traumatic six months. They became the latest club to irrevocably wave goodbye to the professional game via a hard link between club and region, following in the footsteps of the likes of Swansea, Bridgend, Neath, Pontypridd and many others some years ago.
The ownership of both Rodney Parade and the Dragons region of Gwent now fully reside with the member clubs of the Welsh Rugby Union. The condemned clubhouse awaits the bulldozers.
It is a sorry tale, one completely avoidable if the regionalists had been listened to in 2003 and if there had been a complete severance between regional rugby and any historical clubs and in accordance with good governance requirements of real and perceived impartiality.
The private equity should have been transferred completely into new companies for the regional game, or “Newco’s” as David Moffett called them. No shareholdings held via any historic clubs, and no securing of loans for any regional game usage corporate stand against a club freehold asset.
There is no point in now crying over that spilt milk, for what’s done is done, and can and will never be undone, but I hope the lessons have been digested and learned by at least four different entities in Westgate Street in Cardiff.
I watched Newport welcome Pontypridd on Friday evening, under the floodlights. The weather was dry. The beautiful new Desso surface is a dream for rugby played as an aerobic challenge.
Obviously, the WRU Premiership is not itself in a great place, arguably suppressed to ease the pressure from below on the struggling regions above it, but the match was a microcosm of a top flight match at Rodney Parade.
Only one stand is nowadays more than enough for club rugby, even for a visiting club like Pontypridd with travelling support, but it was nevertheless a taster of rugby at dusk and in the dark.
Newport deservedly won the match 29-27.
“Deservedly” in the sense that there was a negative 14-point swing against them on the eve of half-time, a try butchered in one corner immediately followed by a try conceded in the opposite corner.
What could easily have been a 19-13 lead at the break was suddenly and somewhat ominously a 12-20 deficit, and raising the spectre that a dangerous Pontypridd back division might cut loose from that two score lead.
But the Newport pack, causing chaos to the Pontypridd line-out and gradually gaining ascendency, went back to basics and ground out the victory.
The result was a match-winning penalty from outside-half Matt O’Brien, Newport then holding their nerve and seeing out the final minutes.
As for Pontypridd, they are missing several key steadying forwards. Their line-out, an area of strength for opponents Newport in recent seasons, turned into a shambles. They will need these key forwards back as the conferences merge for the business half of the season.
The sin-binning of Dafydd Lockyer and the injury to Aled Summerhill robbed them of a desperately needed cutting edge and momentum, in avoiding being sucked into an arm wrestle up front.
Yes, there is definitely more atmosphere in Gwent rugby in the dusk and the dark. Connacht will no doubt be reminded of that on Friday evening.