Things have to improve at Rodney Parade after the worst season since the introduction of regional rugby
LITTLE did we know when Mike Ruddock steered the Newport Gwent Dragons to third spot in the inaugural Celtic League back in the 2003-04 season, it was to be the best campaign to date in their 15-year history.
With 16 wins from 22 games, Ruddock’s unfancied Dragons, largely made up of club cast-offs and young bucks, would only have champions Llanelli Scarlets and Ulster in front of them.
It helped Ruddock nail down the Wales job and mastermind that 2005 magic carpet ride to the 2005 Six Nations Grand Slam.
But back at the Dragons, things began taking a turn for the worse to where they are today... facing the prospect of the most wretched ever season from a side in the history of Welsh regional rugby.
We look at the reasons for the Dragons’ woeful season and see if there is any hope for better things to come in the second campaign under WRU control...
Just how bad has it been?
When Italian minnows Aironi ended the 2010-11 Celtic League season with just one win to their name in 22 games, they provided something of a laughing stock among the other nations.
But they rallied 12 months later in the first year of the PRO12 increasing their win tally by 400 per cent, though it didn’t stop them being replaced by Zebre.
While South African new boys the Southern Kings are on course to match that one win from Aironi seven years ago, in Wales the Dragons are also on course for a regional record.
You can’t hide from the fact the Dragons haven’t won in the PRO14 since beating Southern Kings in Newport last September.
That is one of only two victories in the league this season. Their other win was over Connacht the same month. The 34-32 defeat to Zebre on Saturday extended a three-year losing streak away from home to 33 fixtures, since the Dragons beat Benetton in Treviso back in March 2015.
Only Southern Kings have a worse points difference than the Dragons in the entire competition, minus 442 to 269.
Next are the Ospreys on minus 77. But perhaps the most galling fact is no Welsh region have gone through an entire season with just two wins to their name.
What’s been the problem and what impact has the new coach had?
With new owners at the region, in the shape of the WRU, came a new coach, with former Ireland hooker Bernard Jackman taking the reins from Kingsley Jones.
He arrived at Rodney Parade with a reputation as a tough task master amid reports of causing a ‘dessert storm’ at his former employers Grenoble.
But he impressed off the field during his first couple of months in the job, adopting a refreshingly open approach with the media and supporters.
Jackman has been keen to point out fitness levels needed improving, more assistant coaches were required and that this was a season of transition.
However, he will undoubtedly be disappointed and perhaps surprised by the mess that has unfolded.
A scathing attack on senior players following a miserable 47-13 defeat to the Scarlets back in early January didn’t get the response he hoped for, and the fact a number of players have known for some time they won’t be part of the plans next year appears to have been an issue.
Jackman is determined to establish a hard, honest and accountable culture among his squad, but it’s questionable whether enough people have bought into that so far. The chemistry between coach and playing squad just hasn’t worked out this season.
Some of his team selections have also raised eyebrows, there have been too many changes in key positions while their game-plan has been difficult to work out at times.
Also the Dragons’ Achilles heel over the last few seasons – the scrummage – remains a worry for the region with the paucity of top-class props at Rodney Parade adding to the problem.
Their defence has clearly left a lot to be desired under new defence coach Hendre Marnitz, with the Welsh side shipping 89 tries in their 20 PRO14 matches so far.
What are the mitigating factors?
Injuries, injuries and injuries sums it up. And to some key players as well, with current Welsh internationals Tyler Morgan, Ollie Griffiths, Leon Brown and Hallam Amos all having lengthy spells on the sidelines as well as the likes of Nic Cudd, Lewis Evans, Zane Kirchner and Gavin Henson.
With Jackman also giving his squad an opportunity to earn new deals, he’s had to plumb new depths and bring in players who perhaps are not yet up to the rigours of regional rugby.
And it has to be said scanning through the season, those key players fit and firing could well have contributed to a better campaign given the number of times the Dragons have seen winning positions slip through their grasp at the death.
Any bright spots?
There are certainly Dragons plusses on the international scene with Cory Hill one of Warren Gatland’s finds this season in the Wales second-row alongside skipper Alun Wyn Jones while hooker Elliot Dee is keeping Scarlets and Lions front-rower Ken Owens on his Test toes.
Brown and Amos could well force their way into the 2019 Rugby World Cup reckoning, while there is a positive element to seeing some of the younger players exposed to Guinness PRO14 rugby even though it’s proved to be a steep learning curve.
You would hope that could well
pay dividends in the years to come.
While the scrummage remains a worry, there have been steps made improving the driving lineout.
What’s changing next year?
Whatever happens in their season finale with the Scarlets on Judgement Day, the arrival of Gloucester and Wales stars Ross Moriarty and Richard Hibbard plus the rest of the cavalry can’t come quickly enough.
The arrival of Ebbw Vale No.10 Josh Lewis, after a season as third choice at Bath, gives them a different option at outside-half, while the signing of Rhodri Williams from Bristol will offset the departure of South African scrum-half Sarel Pretorious. Full-back Jordan Williams and prop Ryan Bevington are also on the way from Bristol, so it will be interesting to see how much of a difference they can really make. You feel more front-five beef is really needed to avoid a repeat of the 2017-18 woes, but things can surely only get better, right? This is how the Dragons could line up next year with everyone fit: Jordan Williams; Hallam Amos, Tyler Morgan, Jack Dixon, Ashton Hewitt; Josh Lewis, Rhodri Williams; Ryan Bevington, Elliot Dee, Leon Brown, Cory Hill, Rynard Landman, Ross Moriarty, Harrison Keddie, Ollie Griffiths.
Jackman’s determined to establish a hard, honest, accountable culture... but it’s questionable if enough have bought into that Anthony Woolford
For Zebre read Benetton; another painful experience on the road for the Dragons