This week sees the first Welsh derby of the season as Dragons will travel to the Arms Park from the East on Friday night for the first time under Welsh Rugby Union ownership.
Ahead of the game Brad from the Dragons Official Supporters Club has offered his views on goings-on at Rodney Parade since we last saw them in May.
Looking back, how did 2016/17 go for Dragons?
With hindsight I think 2016/17 will always be looked back at through the lens of the off-field matters, rather than on. With our Region clearly being very close to folding due to legacy financial challenges, there was a lot of anxiety and uncertainty surrounding the team, the staff, and our supporters.
As much as Kingsley Jones and the team remained focused on the season at hand, it must have been incredibly difficult circumstances in which to operate.
Bernard Jackman has come in over the summer, what are your impressions of him so far?
Personally I have been hugely impressed and cannot speak highly enough of the man. A driven and incredibly focused individual with a hugely personable nature. Publicly most have seen his appetite to engage, both within Region he now leads, but also with the general rugby supporter community through social media.
His drive to implement 100% transparency not only enthuses general rugby supporters, but also demonstrates his intention to change the environment within the Dragons. He is working flat out to implement a new culture at the Ystrad Mynach training base, and Rodney Parade, and give the players the opportunity to develop and demonstrate their ability to implement his new attacking style of play.
Aside from the changes he’s made early doors in terms of recruiting a full team of backroom staff, and getting the team playing a style of rugby that is more threatening with ball in hand, from a supporter perspective his appointment has been superb.
Inviting Supporters to Training Sessions, getting out on his days off to help with mini/junior rugby, holding presentation evenings to discuss aspects of the game with coaches, the list is endless. From a Supporters’ Club perspective also nothing is too much trouble, which is obviously something we greatly appreciate.
Are you happy with your summer recruitment?
It has been well publicised that Bernard has not recruited at all since his appointment. He has openly stated that he wants to be fair to the existing squad, and offer all the opportunity to demonstrate whether they are capable of adapting to the style of play he wants to implement. This is to not only be fair to the squad, who have been through the more challenging times, but also to ensure he recruits wisely in the areas he can assess for himself are needed, and not working off assumptions.
The arrival of Zane Kirchner and Gavin Henson has however been superb for our young squad. Watching training it is clear how much they add to the squad in terms of leadership and direction, and are superb role models for our lads. The amount of time they both spend with the young players off the field is almost as important as the impact they have on it.
Where I think this summer’s recruitment will benefit the long terms success of the Dragons will be with regards to the backroom staff. Due to legacy financial challenges we never really competed on a level playing field with other Regions in this regard, and to have finally have areas such as dedicated Skills Coach, Defence Coach and S&C team all put in place may not seem much, but in the long term development of our players is actually huge.
One Supporter Q&A this summer brought up players that have departed the Dragons and gone onto become better players. Bernard was typically honest with his answer, and stated that this was obviously to do with the environment surrounding the players, and other Regions therefore having better ones. Therefore this was his first priority, and once stabilised and all players assessed, he would recruit into this new environment.
Where would you say the strengths and weaknesses lie within your squad?
Depth is definitely our issue, as this Friday’s game will show. We only have three fit senior back row forwards currently, and one scrum half. Our bench is currently comprised of a number of young academy prospects, which demonstrates the lack of depth in certain areas.
Losing the likes of Nic Cudd and Tavis Knoyle for the entire season before it started was a big blow, and puts even greater strain on the lads we have.
Our strengths are with a number of our young players and the potential they undoubtedly have. The first choice backline, with Gavin adding composure at 10, is a real threat, in particular with Hallam and Ashton on the wings.
Who is your Dragons player to watch this season?
There are a few young players who I feel will make a real breakthrough this season, both for us, and in the national setup. Leon Brown is now getting regular starts, and demonstrating what a phenomenal young prop he is, and alongside him a fit again Elliot Dee is showing why he is so highly rated at hooker.
Cory Hill is leading by example and going from strength to strength, whilst hopefully our centres of Jack Dixon and Tyler Morgan can stay injury free and get back into the Wales reckoning.
Both of our wingers (Hal Amos & Ashton Hewitt) are huge threats, and they have shown their international class in previous seasons, when we were not playing as expansively as we are now. However, my player to watch would be Ollie Griffiths, who is a future Dragons captain, and already in my opinion, the 3rd best 7 in Wales behind Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric.
A flanker who has all the attributes to make it to the very top, Ollie has demonstrated in a struggling team just how good he is. Not only is he Warburton-like at the breakdown, but he has the pace and hands to show up in the backline, and the dynamic speed and aggression to be historically our primary ball carrier.
Appreciate I’m engaging with an audience who put so much stock in Ellis Jenkins, who I believe is also an international class 7, but those of us the watch Ollie up close will testify he is a truly special talent.
What would a successful 2017/18 season look like for you?
We are already on the right path for what a successful season would look like for me, being strong at Rodney Parade, bringing back the pride and passion at our home ground, and showing an intent to bring the best out of our young backs. The style of play being implemented is clearly more attractive, with the recent Connacht game being the best rugby I’ve seen us play in a long time.
I think that this is a transition season for everyone at the Dragons, and the first steps of a potentially positive future. Financially we are in a good place, with legacy debts cleared, and the increase in funding from exciting new sponsors, chairman and the Pro14. This will undoubtedly put us in a strong position when it comes to player recruitment for next season, but as important as the finances, the environment that Bernard creates at the Dragons will also hopefully be enticing to the players he targets.
What is your score prediction for our game?
Although I realise its a big if, IF we had anywhere near our first choice squad available for this game, I’d be very optimistic of a big win for us, based on the attacking threat we are now posing teams. With our injury crisis being what it is, the Blues must be very strong favourites for this game. Despite this my heart will override my head, and I’ll go for a 22-16 victory for the Dragons.
Thanks again to Brad for his excellent insight and we look forward to welcoming the Dragons Official Supporters Club to CAP on Friday night for what will no doubt be a very competitive Welsh derby under the lights.