By Graham Thomas
Kyra Jones believes the 2019 season will prove a turning point for the Celtic Dragons, but admits frustration that it could have been even better.
Wales’ only team in the Vitality Netball Superleague, the Dragons finished seventh in the 10-team table, a placing that sounds modest enough but should be viewed in the context of what had gone before.
In 2018, the Dragons finished bottom. The previous year, 2017, saw them last again, whilst in 2016 they were bottom-but-one in the eight-team structure.
In fact, you could argue the improvement this year was threefold. In those three previous seasons, the Cardiff-based franchise won only two matches in each campaign, but this year they notched six victories.
An excuse to jump up and down and bang a big drum, for some, but for Jones – ever the perfectionist – there were elements of “if only” and “what if. . .”
The Wales international – a veteran of over 50 caps – believes huge strides were made, but the road ahead had opened for more that weren’t taken.
“It was a better season, with better performances, and we were much more competitive,” says the Dragons centre.
“We tripled our number of wins from two to six, which was great. We finished the highest we have in four years. We had a goal in mind (top six), but unfortunately we were one place off that.
“But as a player, you want more. There were things we could have improved and you always strive for more. Although we had a positive season, there were a couple of games where we let ourselves down. There were games we should have won and we didn’t.”
In many ways, the season had been set up as one in which the Dragons were always going to head in a different direction and most likely upwards.
They appointed a new coach last summer in Tania Hoffman, a hugely experienced New Zealander with a track record that suggested bumping around near the bottom of the table would not be viewed as acceptable.
As significant was the fact that Hoffman was concentrating solely on the Dragons – not doubling up with Wales as her predecessors had done. With that came a switch in emphasis, meaning the Dragons were not viewed primarily as a vehicle to develop Welsh international players, but as a team desperate to be competitive with the best in the UK.
In came new players from overseas, such as Jamaican goal-keeper Stacian Facey and the return of Trinidad and Tobago goal-attack Kalifa McCollin. With players from Fiji and England also in the squad, it gave the Dragons more ability to vary their playing style.
“We were a brand new team, really,” adds Jones, herself an Australian who joined the Dragons 10 years ago before qualifying for Wales through residency.
“The only players who had really played before were the four mid-court players – Suzy (Drane), Nia (Jones), myself and Beth (Dyke).
“Some Welsh players may have missed out on contracts and opportunities to play. But becoming an independent franchise has been the best thing they could have done.
“Having Tania full-time has also been a lot better. She’s got a vision and we showed glimpses of that at times. There were new faces and new ideas and her background was different.
“We had girls from Fiji, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, England, Wales and the mix brought something different.
“You had the Jamaicans’ sass, the Trinidadian flair, the grit and hunger of the Fijians . . . having all those together brought a powerful blend.”
The result were notable early victories over London Pulse and Strathclyde Sirens, before beating them in return fixtures as well as another double over Surrey Storm.
Added to that, the performances against the big forces in Superleague – the likes of Team Bath, Manchester Thunder and Wasps – were also more encouraging and suggest the gap might be closing.
More than anything, argues Jones, the rest of the netball world no longer look upon the Dragons as a soft touch, guaranteed points in the bag.
“I think we’ve put the Celtic Dragons back on the map. We’re not a tick box team any more.
“In the last three years – that is what we had become, a tick box team. By that, I mean teams looking at the fixtures would just tick the box and say, ‘yeah, that’s a win’.
“This year – aside from three or four games – we were not that tick box team any more.
“People had to take us seriously again and do their homework. Knowing that other teams could no longer take us for granted was a really good feeling. It was part of the reason, I re-signed.”
There will be no repeat re-signing this year, though. At 33, one of the Dragons’ most influential players is bowing it as she accepts the medical reality of a deteriorating ankle injury.
Jones is still in the extended Wales squad for the upcoming internationals against South Africa, Malawi and Trinidad and Tobago, but after that it’s goodnight.
Typically, though, she is not leaving without a fight – literally, in her case.
On June 14, she is taking part in a white collar boxing night at the Vale of Glamorgan Hotel, for which she is currently training intensely and sparring.
“I needed something to occupy me between the Dragons finishing and the training for Wales starting.
“I’ve already learned what not to do – which is to stand still when you’re getting hit in the face!”
The fight night is to raise funds for charity and anyone interested in backing it should visit her Just Giving page.