TOOTH­LESS DRAGONS

South Wales Echo - - SPORTS - AN­THONY WOOL­FORD Sports writer an­thony.wool­ford@waleson­line.co.uk

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

Bernard Jack­man

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