The Dragons have turned themselves around in recent months in a way that few saw coming, not least the other three Welsh regions who used to regard beating them as something to take for granted. Not any more. Robin Davey looks at the transformation at Rodney Parade.
Two wins and a losing bonus point in their three recent holiday derbies and a place in the quarter-finals of the European Challenge Cup – that’s the current state of play at the Dragons.
No, it’s not a dream, it’s reality. The Dragons – for so long the butt of most of the jokes in Welsh rugby – really did beat the Scarlets and the Ospreys in their festive derbies while gaining a losing bonus point against Cardiff Blues.
Now, they have just secured a place in the last eight of the Challenge Cup.
Years of false dawns, season after season finishing as Wales’ bottom placed region, a period of uncertainty when they all but went under until a last minute rescue act by the Welsh Rugby Union – that has been their fate, a sad record of failure which even led to some calling for them to be replaced in favour of a regional team in the north.
Now, suddenly, all that has changed and while they not going to conquer Europe or win the league, this season has seen a transformation in their fortunes to an extent where they have won eight of their 16 fixtures in both competitions.
Unheard of, at least since the first season of regional rugby way back in 2003, when they were in a position to win the league title going into the final game at Lansdowne Road.
Since then it’s been downhill all the way – until now. So what’s new? What has brought about such a dramatic change in fortunes?
There are a number of contributory factors. But for starters I’ll throw two names into the ring – Dean Ryan and David Buttress, the former the (comparatively) new director of rugby/head coach/board member and the latter the (comparatively) new chairman.
Dealing with the on-the-field first, Ryan has come in as a new, relatively unknown head man from the outside, a respected figure in the national game with a blank sheet of paper and has basically changed the landscape. You could even say he has transformed the whole picture.
He has taken a long, hard look at the entire Dragons playing operation, rolled his sleeves up and set about galvanising the squad and improving performances.
How well has he succeeded, but how has he done it?
For starters, he has given the players a sense of belief, a feeling of confidence which they didn’t have before. On top of that he has brought about organisation and instilled discipline, encouraging the squad to go out and play while operating within a system.
He has spotted weaknesses and turned them into strengths. He has brought in coaching expertise too. Where? Well, you only have to look at the scrums which have not exactly been a strength in the past.
He has engaged Olivier Azam, the gnarled former France hooker who enjoyed a successful spell with Gloucester, and as a result a player like Leon Brown, whose scrummaging had been suspect, has now turned into a real Wales possibility.
Ryan has been helped by the arrival of a really accomplished outside -half. The Dragons have lacked a quality ten even if Jason Tovey did enjoy moderate success.
They have been without a real controller in such a key position, a player who can manage a game and even control it.
Cue the arrival of Sam Davies from the Ospreys where he had lost his way and his place in the team, but now flourishes under the guidance of Ryan.
Given his head and told to go out there and boss a game, that is precisely what Davies has done.
The Dragons have built up a formidable pack to such an extent that no fewer than five members of it have made the Wales squad for the Six Nations – Brown, Elliot Dee, Cory Hill, Ross Moriarty and Aaron Wainwright, the latter turning out to be a real talisman after a rapid rise to the top.
And there was every chance of flanker Ollie Griffiths joining them had he not been ruled out by a succession of injuries.
There are weaknesses, of course there are, like a lack of real penetration in the centre, a shortage of cover at full back where Jordan Williams was ruled out for the season a while ago and replacement Will Talbot-Davies, though essentially a winger, was side-lined by a wrist injury.
And an overriding issue has been a wafer thin squad plus a lack of money which Ryan has lamented, so that too many youngsters have been thrown in to fill the gaps caused by injuries.
But there is little he can do about the financial situation where the Dragons’ budget amounts to £4.8m, around £3m less than the Scarlets receive. for example.
This is where Buttress comes in as chairman – charged with reviving the Dragons’ fortunes off the field.
He is doing just that with his dynamic approach, vision, enthusiasm and dedication to the job while living and working away.
He was brought in by the Welsh Rugby Union’s soon to depart chief executive Martyn Phillips when the WRU announced their rescue package.
A native of Gwent from Croesyceiliog, where he went to school and played rugby, Buttress is a highly successful businessmen, known for his leadership at the Just Eat organisation, but a world traveller with extensive business interests.
He never stops, is totally committed to the Dragons cause, and travels to Rodney Parade regularly from his Oxfordshire home.
— David Buttress (@davidjusteat) January 18, 2020
And he’s a family man too, often taking his wife and three children on match days when he is a very generous host in the Bisley Suite and hospitality box.
He is committed to improving the Dragons finances, regularly makes his presence felt at PRB meetings and, moreover, is committed to taking the Dragons back into private ownership as early as this year at which point he promises there will be increased investment.
So, the picture has changed from gloom and doom to a rather more rosy future, and that will improve further if the Dragons are able to retain the services of key forwards Moriarty and Hill.
Both are out of contract at the end of the season and have been linked with moves elsewhere – Moriarty to the Ospreys, or to England or France, and Hill to Cardiff Blues.
But the question which has to be asked is why would they leave?
Under the terms of the new elite player funding model they can’t earn any more with another Welsh region and if they leave Wales to take up a more lucrative contract elsewhere they can no longer play for their country.
And in any case, with the Dragons on the rise, enjoying considerable success at last and with the promise of more to come on and off the field, they would surely be better off remaining where they are.
They are also witnessing the emergence of a host of young home-grown talented players which shows the Dragons Academy system is alive and working well.
A number have arrived this season, perhaps the most notable being back row forward Taine Basham, who came from nowhere to be named in new Wales coach Wayne Pivac’s first national squad back in the autumn.
He followed in the footsteps of more Gwent youngsters like Dee, Brown, Griffiths, Harri Keddie, Tyler Morgan, Jack Dixon and Ashton Hewitt.
But they are not alone, for others to emerge this season include Joe Davies, Max Williams, Ben Fry, Ellis Shipp and Rio Dyer, while a few more like props Chris Coleman and Josh Reynolds, Dan Babos, Lennon Greggains, Connor Edwards and Aneurin Owen, are waiting in the wings.
So it’s quite clearly all systems go for the Dragons at last.
But they are not alone in the quarter-finals of Europe where they were joined by the Scarlets after their terrific win against London Irish at Reading on Saturday.
The Scarlets, of course, are in a vastly different position from the Dragons, for they have long been successful in both league and European competition, sometimes in the top Champions Cup competition.
This season they were joined by another coach from Down Under in Brad Mooar who has turned out to be a huge success, which makes it even sadder that he’s returning to New Zealand at the end of the season to join the All Blacks coaching staff after accepting an offer he couldn’t really turn down.
He hasn’t just proved a highly successful coach, either, for he has integrated himself with the local community. He is a charismatic figure and he has even learned some Welsh. The fans clearly love him.
Nowhere was that more apparent than at the Madjeski on Sunday when the Scarlets fans showed their affection, not just outnumbering the home supporters but interacting hugely with Mooar.
Another overseas figure at the Scarlets has also been a roaring success – South African No.8 Uzair Cassiem.
He regularly rouses the fans, not just with his performances, but with his engagement with the fans, going over to them, lifting his arms as the urges them for even more support, posing for selfies and signing autographs.
So, it’s an even spread at the Welsh regions as they forge ahead in their own separate ways, the Scarlets from the west and the Dragons from the east.
It is expected from the Scarlets, really, but as for the Dragons, few would have believed this was possible.