The Dragons travel to face the Cardiff Blues on Friday night in the first Guinness Pro14 Welsh derby of the season. For head coach Bernard Jackman it’s a yardstick by which to measure progress and despite a huge injury list there will be no excuses, as he tells Graham Thomas.
Bernard Jackman insists his wounded Dragons will do much more than merely limp through their first derby clash under his charge.
The Dragons’ recent record against the Cardiff Blues is not one to shout about, with just one victory in their last six meetings, but the persuasive Irishman coaching in his first Welsh derby on Friday night intends to ensure it is a memorable encounter for more than mere novelty.
“It’s another step for us and a chance to see how quickly along this route we are progressing,” says the coach who took over in the summer. “We can judge ourselves against our neighbours.”
Jackman takes his side to the Arms Park on the back of an unprecedented injury crisis. He says 27 players are unavailable to him – not quite the 29 quoted earlier in the week – but enough for him to be on the side of those calling for the law-makers to address some fundamentals.
But although his bench looks especially raw, the former Ireland hooker is relaxed about the quality of a starting side that shows only two changes from the team that beat the Southern Kings. The injuries have bitten deep into the Dragons’ reserves but the starting side is relatively unscathed and should be very capable of making it a difficult night for a Blues team low on confidence an uncertain in direction.
“We have had injuries in every game and some of the players haven’t come back as quickly as we would have liked,” adds Jackman.
“But we have a good side out and we like to think we can go to Cardiff Arms Park and do ourselves justice.
“The Blues haven’t had the start they would have liked but I thought their away win at Connacht was remarkable. They have a huge amount of experience and a huge amount of international caps, so we know we’re up against it.
“But we are on the right track here. We have a short, a medium and a long term plan. We are ambitious – the board is ambitious, the new chairman is ambitious, and I’m ambitious. Players want to represent the region in a positive way and we’re working hard.
“I think we’ll see positive moments this season and we will stick to what we need to do to get us there. There is a lot of positivity about what we’re trying to do among both Dragons players and supporters at the moment.”
Central to the Dragons’ two victories so far this season has been Gavin Henson. He may have turned 35, but his experience at outside-half and his rhythmic picking of the right pass, timed at the right moment, gives stability to what could otherwise be a parade of headless chickens.
Jackman is a big admirer of Henson, a respect for the former Wales star’s high standards that dates back to the time before Jackman’s own playing career ended six years ago.
“Gav has been brilliant. I’ve always admired him from afar. I always found it difficult to play against him because he just has so much time on the ball.
“He is the ultimate professional and he’s done a lot of mentoring with our youngsters. On the field, with a young pack where the average age is 24, he is just making sure we are playing in the right areas.
“He’s a class act and I couldn’t speak more highly of him.”
Henson’s longevity – he predates regionalism as a professional player and there are few still around who can make that boast – could be a thing of the past, according to his coach.
Unless lawmakers act to reduce the impact of collision injuries then the sick list the Dragons are currently suffering will become the norm, he warns, and careers will repeatedly be cut short through injury.
“I retired six years ago and the collisions now are noticeably different. It’s attritional. The other thing that has changed is the fitness of the average player. The athleticism of the best players hasn’t altered, but the there are no sitting ducks any more.
“There is no big tight-head prop who just waddles around the field. There are 15 really good athletes and that means there is no space.
“With GPS, coaches know when players are tiring so they make a change from the bench and so for 80 minutes it’s 30 athletes running around trying to bash each other. It’s not easy.
“We give the players really good medical care but they need to be aware that careers can be short. They need to have plans for post-playing.”
Wales and Lions centre Jamie Roberts argued recently that law makers need to adapt the game at the ruck area in order to discourage players from simply fanning out in defence.
Roberts claimed he gets “bashed up” by two and sometimes even three-man tackles because too few players are required to get down and dirty with ruck duty.
Jackman sees a similar problem and says: “Year on year, the average number of players injured is increasing but it just seems everyone is starting this season with a chronic injury crisis and that crisis is across the board.
“The lawmakers need to look at the defensive breakdown. There is not enough reward to contest the ruck which means that there are 15 guys on their feet and no space.
“That means collision after collision, which some people enjoy, but I think that for the spectator in the long term it should be more about space and skill and speed.
“We should allow those things to flourish, but at the moment the laws protect the defending team more than the attacking team.
“Our defensive strategy is two-man hits. You can do that and so it’s a good way of stopping the ball-carrier.
“Players are not going to get less athletic. Coaches adapt strategy based on the laws and I think if they allowed the defending team more of a chance to win turnover ball, coaches would risk sending more players into the breakdown.
“That would lessen the number of players in the defensive line and, hopefully, create more space.”
As for the Blues clash, he admits there is an element of players dropping by the wayside as they struggle to adapt to his more demanding training regime.
“We have 27 players unavailable for the game. Some of that is to do with how we’ve increased the intensity of our training.
“Players are starting to adapt to that now, but it’s more than that because if you look at the numbers presently injured at the other Welsh regions and in the Aviva Premiership, it’s a sign of how physical the game has become.
“It’s probably something the law-makers need to look at.
“I have 60 players in total, if you include those players who are transitioning from the academy. Of the unavailable 27, there are 21 who are senior players so it’s massive hindrance to our selection for the Blues game.
“But that’s life. It’s a case of next man up, someone’s misfortune is another man’s opportunity.”