Opposition View: Dragons

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With Boxing Day comes Welsh derbies, and this year we travel to the Dragons. To give their views on our festive opponents this week I welcome Brad Hayward from the Dragons Official Supporters Club and Jamie Phillips to the Opposition View.

How pleased are you with Dragons season so far?

Jamie: To be honest I had low expectations for this season. This is year one into a three year rebuilding plan at Rodney Parade and there’s a lot of work to be done!

Before the season started Bernard Jackman said that the aim was to qualify for the Champions Cup. I liked the ambition but I felt that was unlikely given the squad Jackman has inherited. There’s plenty of young talent in Gwent but this squad doesn’t quite have the quality nor the strength in depth needed to compete against the best teams and that’s been shown in some of our results.

We are still in Europe (just about!) but I feel our league position is a fair reflection of where we are at the moment. I’m just looking forward to next season! Our recruitment thus far has been very impressive.

Brad: Very happy indeed, which although may sound familiar from a ‘glass more than half full’ character like myself, is an honest assessment of the progress being made, and the wider context to what is going on at the Region.

The playing squad is predominantly the same as last season, gaining Gavin and Zane (who’s been out most of season), and losing important forwards like Ed Jackson & Nick Crosswell, however the changes and improvements being seen, both on and off the pitch at Rodney Parade, is presenting a case for extreme optimism.

Thanks to our new Head Coach Bernard Jackman, and Chairman David Buttress we now have the stability and direction previously missing, and as such, have for one thing provided the players with a full, and very competent, back room staff.

No more multi-tasking for the coaches employed at the Region, they have the capacity to do what they were brought in to do, in their specialism, which we can see with the development and fast tracking of a number of players this year already.

Both Bernard and David have transformed the vibe around the Region, and implemented a change in culture, style, and attitude at the Dragons.  This is evidenced through not only the more attractive style being played by our team this season, but also through the recruitment for 2018/19, where high calibre Welsh players such as Ross Moriarty, Richard Hibbard and Rhodri Williams (to name a few) are choosing to commit to the Dragons.

On the field we’ve seen a huge number of young academy players being given their chances, which is crucial in year one of Bernard’s three year vision.  With it public knowledge that the intent is for a small, yet high quality squad next season, it is vital that we know what academy prospects can offer us the increased depth as/when required.

The playing style has also developed markedly, with the development of an impressive maul, and hugely improved scrum, something that Ceri Jones is richly receiving plaudits for within the Dragons’ community.  However, despite these strengths, there is always an appetite to use midfield playmakers to release wide players too, which with the strengths of Ashton Hewitt and Hal Amos to name just two, is crucial to get the most out of our playing squad.

Bernard Jackman Dragons
Bernard Jackman has overseen a lot of changes to the East

What has been the standout game?

Brad: A number of games stand out this season, with our home draw with Ulster a few weeks ago a hugely impressive performance, considering both the strength of opposition and our huge injury list at the time.

However, my personal favourite was the Connacht fixture at home.  The first half was some of the best rugby I’ve seen live, with us throwing the ball around, dominating possession, and demonstrating the high tempo handling game that Bernard and his staff are trying to implement quickly at the Dragons.

The second half then proved to be a huge challenge, with our already injury ravaged backline suffering even more injuries towards end of the first half, and a makeshift team dug in, showed real tenacity and guts, and saw the team home to a very good win.  The atmosphere at Rodney Parade was the best I’d heard in a long time, and why, as biased as I am with this statement, is a great place to watch rugby.

Jamie: Our Pro14 clash against Ulster. Although we drew the game I was really pleased with what I saw. Ulster took a strong squad down to Newport which included the likes of Piutau, Lealiifano, & McCloskey and we had many players missing through injury and Wales call ups.

When Ulster went 27-15 up I thought that was game over but the character and spirit the boys showed to fight back and take the lead was brilliant. It’s a shame that we couldn’t close the game out. It would have been very cruel on the Dragons had we lost as there was so many positives to take from it. A draw was probably a fair result in the end.

Christian Lealiofano Dragons
Ulster cruelly denied Dragons a win last time out in the Pro14

Who has been the standout player for you?

Jamie: Elliot Dee. He’s been superb for us this season and has done really well to come back after having three ankle operations. Dee’s work rate is incredible and he scores tries too. He’s the Gwent equivalent of Dane Coles!

I was delighted to see him make his Wales debut vs Georgia and earn a 2nd cap against South Africa. I know I’ll make myself unpopular with Cardiff Blues fans when I say this but I believe Elliot Dee is above Kristian Dacey in the Wales pecking order now. He’s ready to be Ken Owens’ back up in the Six Nations.

Brad: There has been a number of players embracing the new philosophy, and really kicking on this season.  In the backs Ashton Hewitt is starting to look back to his best after a period on the sidelines, Hallam Amos’ move to 15 is starting to show for both us and Wales what a quality young footballer he is, and Gavin Henson has provided a calm authority to the team that I think is really helping this young team believe in themselves.

Up front Cory Hill is performing very well as captain, and Ollie Griffiths, despite a few knocks this year, is, in my opinion, a test Lion in the making.  The entire front row is deserved of a mention, with Brok Harris’ switch to loosehead being a huge success, and the hugely talented Leon Brown and Elliot Dee both having massive seasons already, demonstrated by their Autumn call ups.

However, if having to make a call, my standout player thus far has been James ‘Jumbo’ Benjamin.  A young sevens specialist, who was rarely given a run in the team in previous years, Jumbo has been entrusted by Bernard and the team to play in an often young and inexperienced back row, and has consistently shone week in week out.

A hugely talented and skilled open side flanker, he has predominantly played at 8 this season, and really added something to the team’s attacking shape and patterns of play.  Often utilised as a playmaker in the backline, Jumbo’s skillset are one of the highest you will see for a Northern Hemisphere forward, and although not a giant by modern back row standards, his tackle count is huge.

It is been fantastic to see him not only get a chance to express himself, but also the deserved plaudits for his consistency and leadership, where he has often been the senior back row forward, surrounded by Academy prospects.

Elliot Dee Newport
Elliott Dee received a Wales cap in November

What are the hopes for the rest of the season now?

Brad: With this obviously being the first year of a well defined vision and strategy, many Dragons supporters are already looking forward to seeing how next season will look for us.  What is crucial now though is that we don’t ‘write off’ the second half of this season.  We need to continue to develop combinations, our playing style, and provide enough minutes for our squad to be fully assessed prior to this Summer’s overhaul of the squad.

Additionally, the time is now invaluable for a number of our young players, such as Dan Babos, Jarrod Rosser, and Aaron Wainwright, so that they can continue to quickly mature into senior Pro players.

I think continuing to target our home fixtures, and keep the buzz around Rodney Parade is crucial, as the positive momentum around the Region can only be fully sustained by performances and results on the pitch. A win today, and also against the Ospreys, with an injury ravaged squad, would go someway towards building that momentum.

Jamie:  I suppose we just have to try and win as many games as we can. In terms of the Pro14 Edinburgh are fourth in our Conference and we’re 15 points behind them at the moment so it’s looking unlikely we’ll overtake them.

The best we can hope for is to overtake Benetton to finish fifth. That would be a decent finish for us all things considered. I’d like to see us give the Challenge Cup a good go as we’ve done well in this competition over the years. We’ve made it difficult for ourselves now after our frustrating loss at home to Newcastle but I think we are capable of getting back-to-back wins against Bordeaux.

Newport Gwent Dragons v Sale - European Rugby Challenge Cup
Getting Ollie Griffiths fit will be key to the Dragons success

What did you think of our game earlier in the season?

Jamie:  I thought we were outstanding in the first half. We scored some really good tries and played with great tempo. Cardiff Blues looked shell-shocked. But even though we went into half-time 21-10 up, there was a sense of inevitability that Cardiff would come back and beat us.

We ran out of steam and looked knackered after 60 minutes. The lack of squad depth really told in that game. Bernard Jackman was very reluctant to use his bench whereas Danny Wilson was smart bringing on Matthew Morgan who made an instant impact scoring two tries.

The scoreline was disappointing but when you consider that we had a reported 31 players unavailable through injury then coming away with a bonus point wasn’t so bad.

Brad: I think it panned out exactly as we’d imagined on the coach across if we are honest.  We knew we would play, and try to bring a high tempo to the game, but due to a huge injury crisis at the time (38 players out if I remember correctly), we were aware we did not have much in terms of depth in the match day squad.

Once the Blues unloaded their bench we struggled to keep up the pace, and we became a little tired and careless in the second half.  Out exit play was particularly poor from memory, as we kept giving away momentum and possession in our own half, and the Blues’ stronger squad on the day afforded the ability to deliver a strong and deserved comeback win.

Tom James Dragons
Tom James scores in the reverse fixture at CAP

What have you made of Cardiff Blues generally so far?

Brad: If honest I don’t get a huge amount of time to watch many of the Blues’ games, but from what I have seen it has seemed very inconsistent.  Some weeks the backline fires and you look a real threat, and others there seems to be a lot of kicking from the base of ruck, and lateral play.

The centre partnership offers much in terms of gain-line breaks, and the footwork to put defences on the back foot, but I sometimes feel that a playmaking midfield pattern could potentially turn either of Lee-Lo or Halaholo into a even greater threat.  I do feel you are a completely different team with Anscombe at 10, and when conditions are right, look a massive threat releasing runners through narrow channels.

There are some very good young forwards coming through also, with both props and Seb Davies absolutely huge prospects.  In my opinion Davies is another Test Lion in the making, a wonderful talent.  But up front I think there can be a reliance on Nick Williams, that if contained, can limit the opportunity for you.

That may not be the most educated analysis, based on limited opportunity to review, so please be gentle, but what is in no doubt there is a lot of very good talent within that squad.

Jamie: Considering the uncertainty regarding the lease, finances, head coach etc… I think Cardiff Blues are having a decent season. Fourth in Conference A and still very much in Europe.

I think Cardiff’s main problem is the lack of consistency. For example in Europe you had a wonderful win out in Toulouse then you travel to Sale and lose 24-0. That must be quite frustrating for supporters.

It’s good that you have been resigning the key players. Seeing the likes of Seb Davies, Ellis Jenkins, and Lloyd Williams commit their future to the Region is a big boost for the fans.

Seb Davies Exeter
Seb Davies has committed his future to Cardiff Blues

Prediction for Boxing Day?

Jamie: It’s going to be a cracker in front of a packed Rodney Parade. When you look at the match day squads I’d say Cardiff Blues are the favourites. They have a little more quality, and depth than we do. I was annoyed when you signed Ollie Robinson with immediate effect because he’s such a good player and I knew they’d chuck him straight into the team!  We’ll have to be wary of him.

If we are to win we need players like Dee, Henson, Amos & Hill to have big games. I hope 17 year old scrum-half Dan Babos goes well. I’ve been really impressed with him so far. The Dragons will give it absolutely everything at home and out of all the Welsh derbies we are playing this festive period, this is one we really want to win! It’ll be a tight game but due to the Rodney Parade factor I’m backing Dragons to win by 4 points.

Brad: If we did not have so many key injuries (Leon Brown, Brok Harris, Ollie Griffiths, Nic Cudd, Harri Keddie, Tyler Morgan, Sam Beard, Zane Kircher etc) across the paddock I’d be very confident of an upset, and actually a big Dragons win on Boxing Day.

That said, the young lads coming through have really stepped up, and have been able to seamlessly fit into the new style of play at Rodney Parade.  I think that our scrum and maul, and even a targeted kicking game, could be enough to see us home in a potentially tight local derby, in a sold out stadium. Cannot wait!!

Thanks to both Jamie and Brad for a superb Opposition View this week, and here’s hoping for a superb Boxing Day derby, although I may be praying for a slightly different result to the boys!

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