The last threads of the rugby season are about to be tied up, with three of the four regions still having key matches remaining. The Dragons, though, are already under pressure to deliver from the opening week of next season, says Robin Davey.
A runners-up finish for Wales in the Six Nations, with three of the four regions still left with something to play for in the closing weeks of the season – not exactly vintage, perhaps, but reasonably successful all the same.
A Wales squad, minus many leading players who have been rested, head off to North America where they face South Africa in a fairly odd arrangement, then travel to Argentina where they will play two Tests.
The Scarlets, far and away the most successful region, stormed into the semi-finals of the European Champions Cup and they then thrashed the Cheetahs to move comfortably into the Guinness Pro 14 semi-finals.
On top of that, they provided the bulk of the Welsh team on the back of some outstanding performances in Europe and the Pro 14.
Cardiff Blues won eight of their last ten games in all competitions as they staged a stunning revival which took them all the way to the Challenge Cup final where they will face old English rivals Gloucester in Bilbao on Friday night.
And they have secured a place in next season’s European Champions Cup for the first time since season 2013-14.
The Ospreys have suffered a disappointing season by their standards with only four teams – the Dragons, Southern Kings, Zebre and Connacht below them on the records front.
But they are still in with a shout of making the Champions Cup competition next season, facing a play-off against Ulster in Belfast.
Which brings us to the Dragons, the one Welsh senior pro team with absolutely nothing to play for. In fact, their season finished nearly a fortnight ago when, appropriately at the end of such a dismal season, they were hammered by the Scarlets on Judgement Day at the Principality Stadium.
And that is what they can expect right from the off next season – to be judged, for it will be a side very much in the mould of head coach Bernard Jackman, who has had to withstand a barrage of criticism from far and wide after a season which yielded just two wins out of 21 Pro 14 games.
A total of 19 players have not been retained while there have been 14 signings, the latest and last being Brandon Nansen, the kind of abrasive lock they have been looking for.
Nansen played 40 games for North Harbour in New Zealand and has one Test appearance for Samoa to his name but spent a large part of last season with Stade on the injured list.
Nevertheless, it promises to be a key signing for Jackman who has largely signed Welsh qualified players as he seeks to make good the promise made by the Welsh Rugby Union after their takeover of the Dragons to save them from bankruptcy.
So, whereas this season Jackman was parachuted in to replace Kingsley Jones and inherited his predecessor’s squad, next season it will be very much his squad which is where the judgement will come in.
For a number have questioned his credentials meaning there is a lot to prove and it is vital the Dragons make a winning start come September. Nothing less will do. No pressure then!
While Cardiff Blues have been completely silent on the recruitment front and the Scarlets and Ospreys have been fairly limited, the Dragons have been positively active.
Players they have brought inclide Aaron Jarvis, Ryan Bevington, Richard Hibbard, Rhys Lawrence, Nansen, Ross Moriarty, Huw Taylor Rhodri Williams, Rhodri Davies, Josh Lewis, Jacob Botica, Riaan Loots, Jordan Williams and Dafydd Howells.
With the 19 leaving it really will be a new-look Dragons squad next season, and it’s vital they hit the ground running, recording decent victories early doors or questions really will be asked.
Chairman David Buttress, who came in with the WRU takeover at Rodney Parade, is especially dynamic and has all manner of plans for the Dragons on and off the field.
He has made some key appointments with Mike Davies as new managing director and Jonathan Westwood as commercial director. He is also working actively with Newport city council on redevelopment plans for Rodney Parade.
There won’t be any more recruitment by the Dragons ahead of next season, but there are already plans to sign a quality No.10 and perhaps a half-back partner next summer for the following season.
But the Dragons’ playing budget next season will still be less than their rivals and short of the £5m mark which is believed to be the minimum needed to be really competitive.
On the other hand, the WRU have not taken the Dragons over for them to fail and with Buttress and Jackman fully focused, there is every chance they will finally start to catch up with their rivals.
Who knows? They might possibly even be in with a chance of honours come the final weeks of next season.