There’s a novelty feel about the Dragons as the region gears up towards the start of a new rugby season and a new era. But Robin Davey says enthusiasm, good intentions, and Bernard Jackman’s busy Twitter fingers alone will not be enough to take them striding forward.
It is now well documented that it’s been a summer of upheaval for the Dragons – from a time when they were in real danger of going under to becoming a re-branded region under the control of the Welsh Rugby Union.
Rodney Parade was bought by the Union who have spent, or are spending, £5m on the buy-out, extensive renovations and providing a new hybrid pitch so that the Dragons, Newport RFC and Newport County can play on it without the fear of the flooding which so blighted the previous one.
In addition, the Newport Gwent was dropped from the title and the major professional team playing out of Rodney Parade is now known simply as the Dragons.
On top of all that a new head coach, Bernard Jackman was appointed and he wasted no time in re-organising the structure, appointing a series of new coaches. The genial Irishman then went on a big charm offensive, involving clubs and coaches throughout the region and even engaging with fans on Twitter.
But for all the changes that have been made, transforming both Rodney Parade and the Dragons, big questions remain on and off the field.
How, for example, will the re-branded Dragons go down with supporters?
There is no doubt the bulk of fans come from Newport. Will they accept the loss of the Newport name from the title? Will they still go to Rodney Parade to watch the team?
Similarly, now that Newport, such a bone of contention in the Valleys, has been dropped, will fans from places like Ebbw Vale, Cross Keys, Newbridge, Abertillery and Pontypool suddenly flock to Newport to give the Dragons the once over?
Already, the new strip has caused some controversy for the jerseys, especially the home version, retain a large slice of black and amber, the colours of the Newport club.
This has dismayed some Newport diehards who are angry at the loss of the ground they owned for 135 years and now face a period of uncertainty, if not a struggle for their very survival.
On the other hand, the majority of Dragons fans who hail from the city are pleased at the emphasis of black and amber on the new jersey.
And there we have it – the alienation of Newport and the Valleys. When David Moffett decided to go down the route of regionalism, he felt Gwent would be the one place certain to succeed because it already existed as an entity and there was even a county side.
But what he completely failed to realise is that they just don’t get on. One village or town runs into another and they all dislike one another.
And yet the one thing they have in common is their antipathy towards the big boys in Newport. It was never going to work.
So, now, all of a sudden, will fans from places like Pontypool and Ebbw Vale suddenly rush down the valley to watch the Dragons at their Newport base? I very much doubt it.
The fact remains that despite all the efforts to embrace the entire region – and they are, of course, commendable – unless they concentrate heavily on the Newport element the Dragons won’t draw big support and ultimately won’t succeed.
On the field, it hasn’t exactly been a bed of roses so far, either. The Dragons have played three pre-season friendlies and conceded a massive 161 points, being thumped in them all.
It’s important to emphasise, however, that they have been against truly formidable opposition in French giants (in every sense of the word) Montpellier and English powerhouses Northampton and Exeter.
The Dragons resources were especially stressed on the opening weekend, having to field two entirely different teams while for the visit to Exeter when as many as 14 players were affected by a stomach bug.
Much more will be gleaned from Friday’s final pre-season friendly against Glasgow when the Dragons take the game to Ebbw Vale.
There’s free entry, while going to another ground is a worthwhile experiment which could be repeated for the occasional Anglo-Welsh game.
They can’t play a meaningful Guinness Pro 14 League or European game away from their Newport headquarters, however, because no other ground is capable of staging such a fixture and they would lose far too much money from the hospitality and entertainment side of the business.
Jackman has said more than once that he will give the current squad every opportunity and he has no intention of recruiting any players at the moment.
And there lies the big on-field question. How long will that prevail?
When will Jackman decide that he does, in fact, need to recruit new players and pretty sharply?
For those who follow the Dragons, and have done for some years, are well aware that the squad is not strong enough. They know there are deficiencies, they know the front five, in particular, needs strengthening.
Sure, there are any amount of promising young players in the Dragons ranks, a fact now recognised far and wide, but they badly need more experience.
The arrival of Gavin Henson and Zane Kirchner is a start, though both have seen better days, but more is needed, especially up front.
There is insufficient ballast, the set pieces have long been a problem, and until that weakness is resolved the Dragons won’t make serious strides.
There is every hope after the transformation which has taken place they will make a marked improvement, but if they really want to climb the table and progress in Europe, recruitment must be the number one priority, despite the admirable efforts of Jackman to persist with the present squad.
So, a new season which gets under way in little over a week, remains a tricky proposition for the Dragons.
One to relish for sure, but one with many questions still to answer on and off the field.
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