By Daniel Parker
A rare note of cautious optimism chimed around Rodney Parade with the appointment of Dai Flanagan as Dragons head coach.
Flanagan – a former Pontypridd and Cardiff Blues fly-half who hails from the Gwent-Glamorgan frontier in the Rhymney Valley – will take on day-to-day managerial duties from hereon in, with Dean Ryan ‘moving upstairs’ for the Director of Rugby gig.
The announcement has been quietly welcomed by Dragons supporters. After all, something had to change after a season that could only have been more depressing if it was soundtracked by Radiohead and painted by LS Lowry.
A haul of just two league wins in the 2021-22 campaign was unacceptable by any metric, especially with the quality of personnel at Dean Ryan’s disposal.
There are those who would argue that Ryan is fortunate to remain in the employ of the region off the back of that performance.
Others would question his credentials as a high-level behind-the-scenes operator in light of the shoddy treatment afforded to departing club stalwarts Adam Warren and Josh Lewis at the tail-end of the season.
In any case, the only coaching casualty thus far has been Gordon Ross, who struggled to make an impact as backs coach in his two years in Gwent. The gap should be partly filled by Flanagan himself, who did a solid-enough job marshalling the Scarlets backline last year.
The Llanelli outfit banked a respectable 65 tries during the URC season and made the fifth-highest number of line breaks of any team in the league; while only the freewheeling Vodacom Bulls and DHL Stormers produced more offloads in attack.
Dragons fans would welcome a sample of that same swashbuckling energy next season, especially with a plethora of exciting new signings now under Flanagan’s tutelage.
Flanagan also has the advantage of having worked with the likes of Leon Brown, Ben Carter and Leon Brown at schools level earlier in his coaching career.
While the front-five boiler-room isn’t his area of expertise, he will need to invest energy into achieving a sense of cohesion in that department – something that forward coaches Luke Narraway and Mefin Davies have yet to achieve thus far.
Last season only the Bulls clocked up a higher number of scrum offences in the URC, and Esperantohe Dragons won the lowest number of scrum penalties of any of the league’s sixteen teams.
Similarly only Benetton won fewer turnovers throughout the campaign; a statistic that all of the Rodney Parade pack – including one of Europe’s most talented rosters of back-rowers – will want to put right in the campaign that lies ahead.
Former stand-off Flanagan will relish the opportunity to work with four quality outside-halves next season; with ever-present Sam Davies, electric up-and-comer Will Reid, new signing JJ Hanrahan and the returning Angus O’Brien all competing for the jersey.
Coupled with the appointment of Dai Flanagan to the coaching team & the rebrand, it could be genius, particularly if the team win some games. It could however, go the other way.We shall see
— keith bird (@birdybank) June 25, 2022
The new head coach has already hinted that his vision for the Dragons’ attacking style hinges around creativity from 10, telling the press lobby this week “Fly-halves are your leaders, the ones that dictate how you play and call the shots.
I would say that as a former 10, but a lot of responsibility lies with that position and those players are as good as you get.”
There are still issues to be ironed out; not least how the Director of Rugby-Head Coach axis will work in practice.
As The Office’s Oscar Martinez once opined: “Look, it doesn’t take a genius to know that every organization thrives when it has two leaders. Go ahead, name a country that doesn’t have two presidents…where would Catholicism be without the popes?”
Dragons fans might have been slightly concerned by Dean Ryan’s unsteady answers to questions posed to him about the arrangement this week.
In a response with about as much clarity as a game of charades with Boris Johnson, Ryan said “Am I still going to coach? Yes, when he factors me in. Am I responsible for rugby? Yes. How does it work? We’ll work that all out.”
Yet there are examples of the ‘overseer’/head coach dynamic bearing fruit elsewhere – Exeter Chiefs (Rob Baxter/Ali Hepher), Harlequins (Billy Millard/Tabai Matson), Sale (Alex Sanderson/Paul Deacon) and a similar set-up at Leinster (Leo Cullen/Stuart Lancaster).
Huge congratulations to our former Academy Manager Dai Flanagan on his well deserved appointment as Head Coach of the region.
We are extremely proud to be developing both Coaches and Players within our programme https://t.co/k3XCAwpZPN
— Newport High School Rugby Academy (@NewportHAcademy) June 22, 2022
The concept isn’t entirely alien in Gwent either: an equivalent arrangement had been in place at the Dragons under Lyn and Kingsley Jones, who in the early stages of their tenure at the region seemed to have rekindled something of the never-say-die, feel-good spirit that characterised the Paul Turner era.
In the words of former Wales coach Gareth Jenkins, ‘time will tell’ whether the new set-up at Rodney Parade pays dividends.
What is positive is that a young Welsh coach is being given an opportunity to step up and lay down a marker with an exciting squad.
The shortage of Welsh coaches operating at the highest level has been a blight on the health of the game for nearly a decade now, so it can only be a good thing that the window of opportunity has been pushed open a little bit further.
Whilst there’s an argument that the addition of a second ‘boss’ removes a level of accountability from Dean Ryan, there’ll still be pressure on him to deliver too.
While Dai Flanagan will take the onus on the training pitch, the squad he leads – punctuated by a sizeable clutch of close-season transfers – will essentially be one that Ryan has assembled.
If the team succeeds, he can share in the credit; if it falls short of what is expected, the ex-England international’s job should still be on the line, and his reputation certainly will be.
There will be pressure this year that wasn’t there last term – and that can only be a good thing for driving up standards on and off the pitch.