No More Excuses At The Dragons . . . Now Is The Time They Have To Catch Up On The Rest

No More Excuses At The Dragons . . . Now Is The Time They Have To Catch Up On The Rest

When the Guinness Pro 14 season kicks-off this weekend, all four Welsh regions will be desperate to improve on their varied rungs of the league ladder. For the Dragons, though, there are reputations, jobs, and the faith of their fans at stake as Jamie Phillips reports.  

Who would have thought that a Guinness Pro 14 opening round match at home against Benetton would be a ‘must win game’?

But for the Dragons that’s exactly what it is. In fact, the three home games in September against Benetton, the Southern Kings and Zebre are all must win games.

It’s a crucial month for Bernard Jackman’s Dragons. They could better last season’s league record in the first month of this season alone. After the pre-season defeat to Gloucester, new hooker Richard Hibbard admitted: “The first game is huge. The slate is wiped clean from last year and we want to go out there and start afresh.”

Quite right. The Dragons need to forget about that grim and injury-plagued 2017/18 season that resulted in just two league wins. The over-reliance on youth due to a crippling injury crisis, plus the lack of quality and depth was there for all to see.

Never more so than in the embarrassing 45-13 thumping to the Kings in Port Elizabeth. We knew the first year of the rebranded WRU-owned Dragons would be tough, but we never thought it would turn out to be that bad.

However, this is now a much changed squad from that of last season. At the tournament launch in Glasgow, captain Cory Hill said: “Bernard came in last year to a side he perhaps didn’t really want.”

That would appear to be the case with a whopping 19 players released from the region (some departures were injury enforced) and 14 new players brought in.

The recruitment has been impressive, although some unproven squad players have been signed, such as Tiaan Loots, Jacob Botica and Rhodri Davies.

It remains to be seen if they can make an impact at this level, but in fairness, former RGC 1404 centre Loots looked the part in pre-season against Northampton and Gloucester.

I believe the majority of the new players brought in are better than the players released. Nobody ever really thought that Wales and British & Irish Lions back row forward Ross Moriarty would sign for the struggling Dragons but he has – along with the likes of Rhodri Williams, Hibbard, Aaron Jarvis and Ryan Bevington.

These are players with international experience and join the likes of Wales’ Cory Hill, Elliot Dee and Hallam Amos.

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Hard-hitting Samoan international Brandon Nansen could also prove to be a very good signing if he can stay clear of major injuries.

Jackman had previously bemoaned the lack of players in the squad who had any Test match rugby experience. That issue has now been addressed as well as the lack of depth, although the fly-half department is the one area where the Dragons still look a bit lightweight.
Overall, we should expect a much better season from the Men of Gwent. However, with expectation comes realism.

The Dragons have one of the lowest playing budgets in the Pro 14. In fairness, it has gone up by £1 million – last season’s playing budget was just £3.5million – but it’s still lagging well behind rivals Cardiff Blues, Ospreys, and the Scarlets.

The failure to land Wales’ Shaun Edwards as a defence consultant was a stark reminder of the budget issue with Jackman admitting: “It would have been great for us to have him, but we just don’t have the luxury or flexibility of budgets that other teams have.”

It was a very disappointing outcome that could come back to haunt the Dragons, especially if Hendré Marnitz can’t sort out the weak defence. The Dragons’ defence stats from last season tells their own story – played 21, points conceded 672, tries against 94.
No doubt it’s a big season for the Dragons, but in particular it is a huge one, personally, for Jackman.

The former Ireland hooker is an affable bloke who speaks well and always takes time to engage with supporters either on-line or in person.

However, the fact remains that he has yet to win over many of the Dragons faithful. There are some sections of the fanbase who simply don’t think he is up to the job.

They don’t consider he’s the right man to lead the Dragons re-building project.

Often, the talk on the terrace and on supporter forums is that Jackman “talks the talk, but doesn’t walk the walk.”

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He has therefore taken a fair amount of criticism on-line and has sadly copped a lot of personal abuse, which is uncalled for.

But the reality is that professional rugby, like any other sport, is a results-driven business and as likeable as Jackman is, he really needs to deliver better results in this new campaign.

We know there’s a five-year plan in place at Rodney Parade. Most reasonable people understand that rebuilding a club after years of failure and mismanagement takes time.

There’s no magic wand, sadly, but then we also need to see some improvement along the way. The Dragons are an easy target for criticism, but it’s been that way for years.

The only way to gain respect and silence the critics is by winning matches and being much more competitive – making Rodney Parade the fortress it once was.

When that happens, the attendances will increase. If the product is right, people will buy into it.

Re-branding and affinity will not get many punters through the gates. Success pulls crowds. The Scarlets are the perfect example of that.

For what it’s worth, I believe Jackman is capable of bringing good times to Rodney Parade and I back him 100%, but then I also understand why many supporters remain sceptical.

It’s down to him and his assistants to prove them wrong. Winning those three September home games would be a good start.

Winning a league game on the road would also be very welcome. The last time the Dragons won an away game in the league was back in March 2015 out in Treviso.

It’s a truly shameful and damning statistic.

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The European Challenge Cup could be a real struggle this season due to the Dragons being lumped in a ‘pool of death’ containing heavyweights Clermont Auvergne and Northampton.

They will have to punch well above their financial weight and win their home games if they are to have any chance at all of making it out of that horrible pool.

The Pro 14, however, is the bread and butter and I would like to think that we could be in the hunt to qualify for the Heineken Champions Cup.

Dragons Chairman David Buttress said in a recent interview that he would “like us to win five to six games in the Pro 14.”

That comment prompted much criticism from fans with some accusing Buttress of lacking ambition.  I can understand why Buttress would be happy with five to six league wins, but in reality they need to win a few more than that if they are serious about wanting to change the perceptions of the Dragons.
We shouldn’t expect success at Rodney Parade, but we should expect progress.

Supporters were frequently told last season that, ‘it’s all about next season.’

Let’s hope the Dragons deliver on that. Welsh rugby needs four strong professional teams, not one forever limping behind.

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