Dragons' Ashton Hewitt under pressure from Southern Kings' Michael Willemse. Pic: Getty Images.

How the Dragons Are Starting To Stir As The Big Beasts Stumble

Angry Lions, resurgent Dragons, and nose-diving Ospreys – Robin Davey examines the health of the beasts in the Welsh rugby game park after a dramatic few weeks on and off the field.

 

Welsh rugby is never without its dramas and though we are only just into the second month of the current season they are there in abundance – some of the am-dram kind, but another with potential to please the critics.

Who would have guessed little over a month ago that previous top-gunners the Ospreys would lose both their Wales and Lions half-backs Dan Biggar and Rhys Webb at the end of the season?

And in the most bizarre off-field rugby story of this or any other season, who could possibly have imagined in their wildest dreams that one of their players would be laid low after having his hand bitten by a lion?

Who would have thought Cardiff Blues would lose their highly-rated head coach Danny Wilson amid stories of financial cutbacks and a lack of investment?

And who would have predicted that their biggest investor, chairman Peter Thomas, would have been savaged so publicly by a leading pundit on the Scrum V TV programme?

On the other hand, who would have guessed that perennial losers, and great under-achievers the Dragons would finally emerge from the doldrums and be the most talked about region in the country?

Yet all that is happening under our very noses as Welsh rugby lurches from talks of splits to calls for resignations and names of possible successors. Sounds very much like the current Tory party!

The Ospreys seem to be coming apart at the seams as their season unravels at an alarming rate.

Granted, their Lions were late starting after their exertions in New Zealand during the summer, but they have still lost four of their five league games and are stuck at the bottom of their Guinness Pro 14 conference table along with their equally hapless rivals, Cardiff Blues.

Ospreys and Wales scrum-half Rhys Webb.

They are losing half-backs Webb and Biggar to Toulon and Northampton, respectively, at the end of the season as the pair decided to turn down WRU NDC contracts and join far wealthier clubs with a much better chance of chasing trophies. And who can blame them as they approach their 30s?

Even the WRU have admitted, in a statement about the departure of Webb, that though they tried to retain his services, market forces sometimes make it impractical to keep players in the fold.

On top of their major losses, Ospreys head coach Steve Tandy is coming under increasing fire with many calling for his head only a short time after he was given a contract extension by the equally under fire board.

And then they had to suffer the ultimate fiasco of losing hooker Scott Baldwin against the Cheetahs last week after he put his hand in a lion’s cage and promptly got it bitten. Even if he was ill-advised that it was safe to do so, what on earth possessed him?

The next few fixtures look anything but promising for the beleaguered region as in successive weeks they face arch rivals the Scarlets in the Pro 14 and heavyweights Clermont and Saracens in the European Champions Cup. Good luck with that trio!

Over to Cardiff Blues and they have been rocked by a sequence of events which, in turn, followed a summer of discontent when they had to part with one player – Franco van der Merwe – before he even appeared for them due to financial cutbacks.

Those cutbacks have now accounted for Wilson who has reluctantly decided to seek pastures new as he has no wish to continue under the current financial situation, never mind manage further constraints next season.

As a result, former Wales captain Gwyn Jones chose to deliver a withering attack on Thomas in last Sunday’s Scrum V programme, some of it intensely personal.

There are those who will feel it was justified, while others will believe it decidedly harsh on an individual who has allegedly spent £14m of his own money on the Blues. You pays your money, or, in this case, many won’t as they intend staying away in protest at the declining situation.

Danny Wilson will be the latest frustrated Cardiff Blues coach to depart. Pic: Getty Images.

Yet amid all this controversy the Dragons, of all teams, are not just emerging from the very bottom of the pile, they are actually showing real green shoots of recovery.

Indeed, they are on the brink of a revival which would have been deemed impossible not long ago.

There is undoubtedly a lot more to be done, but apart from the well documented story of the Welsh Rugby Union takeover, the whole Rodney Parade ground has been given a big makeover, a new chairman has been appointed in wealthy local businessman David Buttress, and a new board will be named shortly.

On the field, the squad is benefiting hugely from the appointment of Irishman Bernard Jackman as head coach.

He had barely got his feet under the table when he strengthened the entire coaching staff and he embarked on a personal charm offensive, engaging with fans on Twitter, inviting the regional club coaches to meetings, encouraging schoolchildren, and, to the amazement of one very experienced journalist, even entered the media room last week to shake hands with everyone there.

He inherited the present squad and immediately gave the returning Gavin Henson real responsibility at outside half-and how the former errant child of Welsh rugby has prospered.

But what Jackman has done most of all is encourage a whole series of young players. It has often been a case of needs must after an horrific run of injuries, but a whole group of youngsters have emerged, probably running into double figures.

Hallam Amos, Tyler Morgan, Jack Dixon and Ashton Hewitt make as talented a three-quarter line as any around – Amos and Morgan already capped, while young forwards Elliot Dee, Leon Brown and Ollie Griffiths all have a big future in the game.

Others are set to join them as the Dragons follow the model of Premier Division high fliers Newcastle, relying very much on home grown talent. Ironically, the English club are among their opponents in the European Conference competition.

Gavin Henson pulled the strings for the Dragons in their win over Connacht.
Gavin Henson. Pic: Getty Images.

The entire atmosphere at Rodney Parade has changed with the Union backing – ground changes, new pitch and improved crowds. It is now almost the place to be, an incredible transformation.

In reality, that number one place is still at The Scarlets, who have carried serenely on, continuing in the same vein as they did last season with some blistering attacking rugby.

Steff Evans is surely destined to play for Wales this autumn after scoring some brilliant tries, Johnny McNicholl has again proved a real acquisition from Down Under, while Lions player-of-the-series Jonathan Davies is a real lynchpin.

They are set to miss lock Tadgh Beirne, who is returning to Ireland in an effort to win a cap, but that apart all seems to be progressing well with Rhys Patchell and Aaron Shingler possibly joining Davies and namesake Gareth in the Welsh team.

And we haven’t even mentioned the return of full back Leigh Halfpenny to Wales and linking up with the Scarlets. Little wonder, then, that they are top of their conference table in the Pro 14, even if they were given a bit of a fright by Connacht last week.

Which shows they can’t take anything for granted. Little chance of that, it seems as they continue to fly the flag for the Welsh regions.

That’s just as well with two of their rivals floundering badly and the other slowly emerging. But there is still a long, long way to go.

 

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