The Guinness Pro 14 fixtures are out and it’s a time for new hopes and dreams. Robin Davey says for the Dragons, though, it is far more. The scheduled matches have given them an opportunity they cannot afford to squander.
The Dragons have been handed a golden opportunity to finally rise from the ashes and at last make some kind of impression in the Guinness Pro 14 league table.
Aside from the first season of regional rugby when, under the guidance of Mike Ruddock, the Dragons finished third and even had a chance of winning the title, they have been very much the poor relations.
Consistently the bottom placed Welsh region and pretty much bottom of the league table too, it’s been a struggle just to keep going for much of the time.
A succession of coaches have failed to stop the rot until last season, when they were very much in danger of going under, the Welsh Rugby Union stepped in, bought Rodney Parade and a completely new regime took over.
Even then it was desperately hard going, the Dragons performing even worse when they won just two league games, only hapless South African newcomers Southern Kings finishing below them.
There were extenuating circumstances as a new chairman and new board sought to get to grips with the financial problems off the field and new head coach Irishman Bernard Jackman had to withstand a crippling injury list to his small squad, forced to blood an unprecedented number of youngsters.
Now, though, it’s a different matter. The financial situation is being stabilised, plans are advanced for the development of the top end of Rodney Parade, while Jackman has recruited a number of high (certainly higher) quality players.
As such, the Dragons will be expected to improve and deliver in a way they haven’t managed for years. Which is where that golden opportunity comes in.
For the Pro 14 fixture list just released has presented them with three home games in their first four, none of them, with the possible exception of the considerably improved Benetton team, that difficult.
Two of those opening four fixtures are against Italian opposition, Benetton the opening game on September 1, with Zebre the opposition in week four on September 22.
And second up on September 8 is Southern Kings, while the only time they have to travel in the opening month is to Ireland to face double champions Leinster.
They will hardly be expected to get anything out of that, but the ever patient fans will expect them to win those opening three home matches and finally even begin to rival the other regions.
Obviously, Ross Moriarty will be the talisman signing, now a proven international who was arguably Wales’ best forward on the summer tour for the matches against South Africa and Argentina.
But there is far more to it than that, so much so that Ian Evans, the former Wales lock who is now assistant forwards coach and Under-23 coach with the Dragons, has forecast that they will provide the backbone of the Wales pack for some years.
He cited Leon Brown, who he labelled a freak of nature, Elliot Dee and Ollie Griffiths – and didn’t even mention Moriarty and Cory Hill.
Backing them up will be new props Aaron Jarvis, back from a stint in France and hoping to add to his 18 caps, and Ryan Bevington, powerhouse Samoan lock Brandon Nansen, England Under-20 back rower Huw Taylor, who is Welsh qualified, plus hookers Rhys Lawrence and a certain Richard Hibbard, still a real force.
Among the backs hoping to add fluency and provide some much needed finish are scrum-halves Rhodri Williams – who could be the best signing of the lot – and Rhodri Davies, with Jordan Williams, Josh Lewis. with a point to prove at No.10, Jacob Botica and Tiaan Loots from RGC, and winger Dafydd Howells.
This is now much more Jackman’s squad, only a high quality No.10 to arrive perhaps next year, the final piece in the jigsaw. Accordingly, more will be expected from them.
The pressure is on this time, Jackman and the board are aware of it. This is year two of a long-term project, there is still a long way to go. But the green shoots have to now be visible.