The Dragons meet Glasgow Warriors at Eugene Cross Park on Friday. Geraint Powell argues it’s more than just a “missionary” trip which should be supported as the region tries to overcome the suspicions and resentments of the past.
After a baptism of fire on the road against powerhouses Montpellier, Northampton and Exeter, whilst their new Desso pitch has been laid at Rodney Parade, the Dragons head up to Eugene Cross Park in Ebbw Vale for their final pre-season friendly match on Friday afternoon against a Glasgow Warriors district now under the guidance of Dave Rennie (formerly of the Chiefs of New Zealand).
Expectations need to be carefully managed by the Dragons, for the evolution will take a number of seasons, but there has not been such a good vibe in Gwent rugby for many years – albeit mixed with sadness and regret over the consequences of the Newport Gwent Dragons failure for one club.
Given Rennie’s well-publicised comments since arriving in Scotland about the need for his Glasgow team to get around and connect with their own region, and about the importance of players coming up through local clubs and communities to create a stronger sense of belonging for players and fans, it is perhaps apt that this is the fixture in Ebbw Vale.
Rennie and Bernard Jackman are following an almost identical representative regional rugby philosophy, with greater evolution required in Gwent than in the Glasgow/Caledonia districts.
One of the criticisms levelled at regional rugby by a few is that it is somehow all about losing money through playing professional matches at secondary venues.
Nothing could be further from the truth. So-called “missionary” matches should have been prioritised during the early years of regionalism, before and especially during the construction of the corporate Bisley Stand at Rodney Parade.
It was not done and it has contributed to the eventual business failure of the Newport Gwent Dragons. And it also, after liabilities at the struggling region were secured against club assets, led to Newport RFC surrendering ownership of a somewhat tired Rodney Parade to the union.
Any 2003 model should now be well beyond regular “missionary” matches, other than as a one or two matches a season – non-derby flag-waving exercises to reinforce inclusivity and draw rugby fans from the hinterland clubs and communities to the primary facility.
They could be strategically scheduled as a Saturday “Bisley Plus” double header (e.g. Newport v Ebbw Vale at Rodney Parade followed by a Pro14 S4C evening match at Ebbw Vale, to minimise the corporate income loss), with the regional focus going forwards being on sweating the Bisley Stand and fully monetising that facility.
But we are where we are in Gwent.
Just as with the complete disenfranchisement of North Wales upon the creation of logical representative regional rugby in 2003, alienation in the South Wales valleys is not a problem that can simply be ignored and somehow wished away. It has to be tackled head on, and it is good seeing the Dragons and the union doing just this in Gwent.
It has not just been a case of losing income from an antagonised older generation, for that generation then acts as a blockage to a region successfully pursuing a “millennial strategy” and also with engaging with the next generation again of children. If neither a parent nor a grandparent will take a child or even buy them merchandise, it becomes hard work for the region to capture.
Sometimes it can be active indoctrination against the region, and undoing indoctrination is always a difficult task, as loved relatives are not dishonoured even beyond death, but it is usually more widely simply the region playing no part in the lives and culture of rugby fans, clubs and wider communities.
Welsh rugby desperately needs to build a culture of club, region and country, so successful in other small rugby countries. Maybe there could be a divide in the club game below representative rugby, between local community clubs and the semi-pro clubs with “A” licences.
And then monetise all of this after encouraging fans to engage with as many levels as possible, co-ordinating various fixture lists, limited only by each individual’s resources in terms of time and money. Not limited by affinity, or rather the spectacular lack thereof.
We know the two areas of Welsh rugby that were best suited to regional rugby – North Wales and Gwent.
Given the detached geography and separate development, the 30 widely dispersed “second class” clubs of North Wales have no problems about a unifying region. There was no alternative “super” club candidate.
There are no obvious current issues with RGC, other than perhaps as a development region it is having to commercially compete with its’ own feeder clubs on a Saturday afternoon as a participant in a South Wales Saturday afternoon semi-pro club league.
But North Wales was disenfranchised in 2003, a heady mix of a union weakened by crippling stadium debt, parochial club power along the M4 motorway, and South Walian rugby media jobs at risk by their supporting one region for the north.
If any club in general was the wrong vehicle for commercialised professional rugby, it applied especially to Gwent.
With 73 clubs within the region, including no less than seven of the old 18 so-called “first class” clubs, any attempt in Gwent to create a region with a brand and identity based heavily around or associated with any single club was doomed to disaster.
Unfortunately, the futility of this did not deter Welsh rugby in 2003. The consequences for Newport RFC, who ultimately found themselves carrying professional regional game risks against their club assets, including a new Dragons usage stand, have now proved to be profound and saddening.
They will bounce back, such is the resilience of one of the great clubs in Welsh rugby, and they have the ability to remain a force in the club game for many years to come, but there should have been a clean break between clubs and regions in 2003 to avoid any such scenario.
So, having dipped their toes in the water with a pre-season match at Eugene Cross Park in 2014, why is it so important for the Dragons to return there this Friday and periodically?
Relations in 2002 and 2003 were not always the best between Newport RFC and Ebbw Vale RFC, with benefactor Tony Brown once notoriously being denied entry to a match at Eugene Cross Park.
The battle over whether Gwent should be a Newport RFC/Ebbw Vale RFC amalgamation called Gwent or a Newport RFC “super” club throughout the summer of 2003 pleased nobody, with all three factions (Newport RFC/Ebbw Vale RFC/the rest) unable to commit to purchase season tickets with all the uncertainty over the identity of what would finally emerge.
Two factions mostly never did engage, when the dust finally settled. The resultant so-called “mish mash” over the next 14 years ultimately satisfied few.
But that was then, and this is now. Gwent will not get nine lives, but it has been granted a second.
Gwent rugby needs to move forwards, with the core club neutrality principle that should have been the cornerstone of professional rugby and regional rugby in Wales from the very outset. The past ill feeling needs to be buried, for the disunity has left only losers.
Rodney Parade has the primary venue revenue earning corporate facilities within the Bisley Stand to host professional regional rugby, whilst also hosting Newport RFC and Newport County AFC.
Eugene Cross Park is at the northern end of the region in Blaenau Gwent, the perfect occasional secondary venue location. It has the capacity to host as a secondary “missionary” venue, albeit less salubriously for corporates, either on a “Bisley Plus” basis or with temporary marquees etc.
This Friday is neither, a pre-season friendly with free entry. But it is part of the evolving new era.
If you are available on Friday afternoon, and many of you unfortunately will not be due to work commitments, why not pop along to Eugene Cross Park and give professional regional rugby a try?
And support the Dragons, a professional regional rugby team equally representing Gwent and all its 73 rugby clubs across the five local government districts of Newport, Blaenau Gwent, Caerphilly, Torfaen and Monmouthshire.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained. And you have nothing to lose in trying, not even the cost of tickets for you and your family and/or friends.