By Graham Thomas
Ashton Hewitt has revealed how the light touch of head coach Dai Flanagan has revitalized the Dragons.
The Rodney Parade wing was part of a squad that went from the depths of a 44-6 hammering away to Edinburgh on the opening weekend of the United Rugby Championship, to the joys of a first home win in 17 months against Munster.
Now, comes the acid test of backing up last week’s win, when Hewitt and his teammates host South Africa’s Sharks on Saturday night in a match that is live on S4C.
Back-to-back victories is something the Dragons have not managed since March 2021, but Hewitt is insistent the increasing influence of Flanagan is a cause for optimism.
“Dai is one of the boys,” says Hewitt, about a coach who joined in the summer and has taken charge since the removal from front of house of Dean Ryan and the expected departure of the director of rugby.
“He is happy to get involved in every way he can. He is honest, but he is positive and he’s making a big impact.
“Dai has been a great addition to the coaching staff. He wants to play quick, positive rugby which is what we want to be all about.
A good Sunday at the office https://t.co/KH5ZpttXQV
— Ashton Hewitt (@ashton_hewitt) September 26, 2022
“He brings different experiences, which we can all learn from and good ideas on how best to implement that game plan.
“We had a solid pre-season, working on the team that we really want to be. Dai was a big part of that. He’s been great for us in getting us towards that style of play we want to be renowned for.”
Hewitt had spent 17 months on the sidelines with a serious knee injury before he returned to action in pre-season and then made his first start against Munster.
The 27-year-old was not on the scoresheet, but has happy enough when fellow wing Rio Dyer burst between two tacklers to score a dramatic and decisive late try.
“We all know how dangerous he can be,” says Hewitt of Dyer, who is five years his junior.
“It was good to see him get some ball in hand. The wingers were starved of ball against Edinburgh. That can be extremely frustrating.
“As wings, it was nice to get our hands on the ball. Rio, especially, was punishing mistakes from the opposition defence and I was buzzing for him.
| … Join us back home this Saturday as we welcome South African side Cell C Sharks to Rodney Parade! ⤵️
— Dragons RFC (@dragonsrugby) September 26, 2022
“That score summed the energy and excitement of how we want to play. Rio has the attributes to score those kinds of tries if we can get the ball to him in space. Long may it continue.”
Dragons fans, though, have seen one-off performances that have heralded false dawns too many times before.
A follow up win against a Sharks side that finished fifth in the URC table last season, and beat Zebre in Parma last week, would be a different statement and the wing admits: “As team it is in the back of everyone’s mind that we need to back up that win.
“The Sharks will be physical and they will try and bully us up front. They will bring a really aggressive defence, too.
“But with the South African sides, it’s about taking them out of their comfort zone and making life unpredictable for them. You can’t allow them to just stick to their shapes.
“But we have to look more to ourselves. We can’t drop from the levels and mentality we had against Munster.
Our Sharks team to take on the Dragons this Saturday
— The Sharks (@SharksRugby) September 29, 2022
“We have to think about the things we did well last week and work hard to improve the things where we dropped off. There is always something to improve on.
“We have to make sure we enjoy these moments, but we also want to normalise them.”
Hewitt has been a regular starter in the Dragons line-up since the 205-16 season and is a firm favourite for home fans who will be thankful his comeback appears to be a smooth one so far.
“The knee feels good. It was a little stiff after my first game back but there are no worries.
“The circumstances of my return have been perfect. My body reacted well and I feel ready to go again.”
S4C – Saturday, 7.30pm: Clwb Rugby.
Dragons v Cell C Sharks
Live coverage of the United Rugby Championship match between Dragons and Cell C Sharks. English commentary available. K/O 7.35pm.