The season is coming to a climax for the Scarlets, the Cardiff Blues and the Ospreys with all three having something to aim for. For the Dragons, though, it’s a familiar story of hoping for jam tomorrow, even before the picnic has been packed away. Geraint Powell looks over their campaign and examines where they go from here.
The Welsh Rugby Union’s takeover of the Dragons was not ratified by Newport RFC shareholders until 9 May 2017.
So, with the transaction completion and the appointment of Bernard Jackman as head coach not taking place until the following month, the first Dragons season of the new era was certainly going to be “interesting” for Gwent regional rugby.
The tight timescale left little time for either recriminations about the past or for any more player recruitment for this season, one a blessing and the other an undoubted challenge.
Managing expectations this season was always going to be a difficult business.
It was clear that many existing fans were unaware of or in denial about the extent of the organisational decay and the true extent of the salvage operation required.
The Dragons had been increasingly operating on a shoestring budget for a decade or more and had been falling further behind even the other low spending Welsh rugby regions. You can defer maintenance and investment for a year or two, and hope to get away with it, but certainly not for that length of time.
The terms of the Rugby Services Agreement in 2014 were never going to financially favour such an approach or squad, that would be both unable to provide many Test players or present many candidates for lucrative union 60% contribution dual central contracts. The two western regions have consequently since received millions more in WRU funding than the Dragons.
Matches had increasingly become a damage limitation exercise, a kick chase game focussed on stopping the opposition from playing any rugby and picking off a handful of wins each season. Rodney Parade felt like death by a thousand cuts, with the exception of the 2011 Bisley Stand.
Marquee Welsh Test players such as Luke Charteris, Dan Lydiate and Taulupe Faletau had long since left, together with a number of highly regarded lesser players such as Dan Evans.
The summer 2017 departures would include No. 8 Ed Jackson (non-rugby accident), wing Tom Prydie, versatile Kiwi forward Nick Crosswell and former Welsh international prop Craig Mitchell.
The only significant recruitment, before the WRU takeover, would see Test veterans Gavin Henson and Zane Kirchner joining the back line and adding significant decision-taking capability but with question marks over how much game time they would achieve. As it has transpired, Kirchner missed most of the first half of the season and Henson will miss the second half of the season.
So, the balancing of priorities with the playing squad for the first season- in many ways one long pre-season for 2018-19 – of the Dragons evolution was always going to prove challenging.
Very few would deny that the Dragons required, and so still do require, a major infusion of fresh on-field leadership, on-field decision takers, physicality and mental strength after so many struggling seasons in the wrong half of the league table.
Notwithstanding the tough budgetary constraints, there would need to be a significant recruitment drive conducted this season for 2018-19 as there were severe limits as to what could be achieved within the inherited squad and environment.
There has been considerable success with player recruitment for next season including – to the amazement of some – British & Irish Lions No.8 Ross Moriarty and former British & Irish Lions hooker Richard Hibbard (both joining from Gloucester).
A clutch of highly rated Welsh exiles will return across the Severn to Rodney Parade, including former internationals Rhodri Williams and Ryan Bevington as well as Jordan Williams, Josh Lewis and Rhodri Davies. Powerful England U20 lock, but Welsh qualified, Huw Taylor joins from Worcester.
Further quality recruitment is ideally required, a classy, experienced No.10 and an athletic aggressive lock probably towards the top of Jackman’s wish list.
To fund this recruitment, some tough decisions have clearly had to be made in relation to the existing squad and wage structure. Both in terms of letting players go and, one might deduce, in terms of making new offers at a level that would most likely see rejection.
Given the troubled history of Welsh professional regional rugby, there was certainly a pressing need in Gwent to engage with the wider region. There has been a determined effort in this regard, a template that other regions could learn from, and with head coach Jackman excelling.
Future competitiveness and success has to land on fertile consumer ground, if it is to be properly monetised. You can’t attract rugby fans with success, if they feel completely detached from your team and simply don’t care if your team wins or loses.
Having additionally performed this “director of rugby” role this season, with a heavy emphasis on quality player recruitment and driving regional engagement, in addition to evaluating his inherited rugby structure and evolving the environment/culture, it will be interesting to see how the Dragons continue to manage this regional engagement process as Jackman of necessity becomes next season more of a pure “hands on” head coach.
The curse of regional rugby in South East Wales has been very narrow core supporter bases, with many potential attending fans from within the rugby fraternity alienated through a lack of affinity, and a consequential reliance on all too infrequent success to draw a wider sporting event crowd.
And, of course, it is difficult to kick start any initial success within the financial constraints of an overly narrow support base. And, without initial success, there is no lasting virtuous circle as the financial proceeds of initial success are re-invested to achieve continuing success.
The core fan base has to be gradually widened for the Dragons to become more sustainable. It is an identity flaw embedded in Welsh rugby’s retail market, but one with negative financial implications in the corporate market of broadcasters and sponsors.
If recruitment and engagement have undoubtedly been a success, the most difficult balancing act initially appeared to be between the momentum of winning matches versus the need for serious player and environment development.
After an opening month that saw an immediate reality check against Leinster and promising home wins against Connacht and the Southern Kings, a squad that was short in number and threadbare in quality/depth was simply overwhelmed by an injury crisis that has approached 30 players at times.
The absence of Henson since Christmas has exposed the lack of experienced game managers within the current squad and not just at outside-half. As he will turn 37 during the course of next season, the Dragons cannot overly rely on him.
What price would Jackman pay for Owen Williams, a player who needs to play for a Welsh region if he harbours serious Test intentions, to become his third marquee recruit from Gloucester?
The decision to heavily and increasingly prioritise player development was not really a decision at all, for it was literally taken out of the hands of the coaching staff by the injury situation given their clear lack of confidence in the abilities of some of the injury-free inherited players.
There was little chance of positive winning rugby, and the odds were lengthening on another season of cobbling together wins through negative rugby and itself an approach with no lasting benefit for future seasons. The Dragons have now abandoned this season, with the loan of Dorian Jones to Worcester leaving Arwel Robson as the only fit 10, the focus exclusively upon next season.
The mental frailties against Ulster, Benetton and the Cheetahs in particular – all matches that could have been won – will have frustrated the coaching staff.
The player development focus has seen Cory Hill emerge as a Dragons leader and a genuine Welsh Test lock. Elliot Dee and Leon Brown have followed him into the Welsh squad. Open side flanker Ollie Griffiths will be looking for a big 2018-19 season to join them, following a series of unfortunately timed injuries this campaign.
But it is further down the pecking order where the big long-term gains have been made. Aaron Wainwright has come from nowhere to become a genuine regional level flanker, who will soon hope to be making a case for higher honours.
Scrum-half Dan Babos, such is his age that a parental letter was required for him to tour South Africa with the Dragons, has shown his long-term potential and can now be fast-tracked. Fellow schools district back row player Taine Basham is also showing signs that he will follow in the Welsh age grade footsteps of Max Williams and they can probably both make the step-up to regional level over time.
Another question for next season’s continued evolution will be how some Dragons players, who have been restricted to an uncompetitive squad and environment, will react to both a fresh influx of quality and the improving depth of youngsters below them.
There will be an opportunity for the likes of Lewis Evans, Rynard Landman and Brok Harris, so often in recent seasons fighting in a lost cause, to finally show Welsh regional rugby what they can do.
And, of course, and well away from the limelight and the rugby side of things, much has been going on to completely revamp the Dragons as an organisation ahead of next season.
In 12 months, the Dragons will have appointed a new chairman, chief executive/general manager, commercial head, communications head and ticketing head as the clean break from the unhappy “mish mash” past is completed.
For, with professional rugby now a significant business, all income streams, including from redeveloping tired old sections of Rodney Parade, will need to be maximised and brought to fruition as soon as possible.
The Dragons need to significantly grow their devolved revenue in order to help grow their player wage budget. That’s the financial equation, including sweating their stadium asset.
On the rugby front, 2018-19 will for the purists in many ways be the most interesting season of the long-term evolution – as we watch Jackman integrate his significant new acquisitions with the best of his inherited squad and the emerging crop of promising youngsters.