European progress offers concrete evidence of Dragons’ rise

Paul Eddison
20 January 2020

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There was no shortage of optimism when Dean Ryan joined the Dragons last summer and now the team can point to tangible results at Rodney Parade.

After all, every new regime brings with it hope of a revival, but like many others the Dragons have suffered their fair share of false dawns.

You have to go back five years for the last time the Dragons won more than five games in a Guinness PRO14 campaign, and that was also the last time they finished ahead of one of the other Welsh regions.

They have reached the knockout stages of the Challenge Cup more recently, but even in Europe it had been three seasons since they made it through the groups.

So after emerging from a pool that featured both Castres and Worcester Warriors, Ryan and his coaching team have something concrete to build on.

Add in two wins from the three festive derbies, and finally ending the away day hoodoo, and there is a lot to be excited about in Newport.

In the Guinness PRO14, the Dragons have won four and lost six and currently sit six points behind Glasgow Warriors in the race for a Final Series spot.

The expectation is that the Warriors or Toyota Cheetahs, who sit between the sides but with two games in hand on their European rivals, will finish ahead of the Dragons in that third spot in Conference A.

Still, to be in the race heading into February is an improvement on recent seasons and evidence of progress.

The Guinness Six Nations period will be make or break in any bid to finish in the top three, and the Dragons will certainly see a home clash with Benetton and a trip to Glasgow Warriors as games they should be targeting with those pair missing greater numbers to international call-ups.

The Dragons’ form has seen them lose five players, front row pair Elliot Dee and Leon Brown, as well as Cory Hill, Ross Moriarty and Aaron Wainwright.

The latter two will obviously be missed, they were key figures for Wales’ path to the World Cup semi-final, while Hill is the club captain.

And yet if there was one area that the Dragons could probably afford to lose players, it is in the back row – yes, Hill is more of a lock but he has started as many games in the back row as the second since returning from injury.

Consider that Ollie Griffiths, Taine Basham and Harrison Keddie, all Wales age group standouts, are starting to come of age (or in the case of Griffiths, return from injury) and push their international colleagues for game time.

That is before you even mention experienced campaigners like Nic Cudd and Lewis Evans.

The fact there are no Dragons backs in the Wales squad will certainly be something Ryan looks to rectify, but having his established half-back duo Rhodri Williams and Sam Davies pulling the strings will certainly help them in the immediate future.

Wales’ midfield injury crisis could also have had an impact with Adam Warren pushing hard for selection and Tyler Morgan still only 24, having won the last of his Wales caps back in 2018.

They both missed out, like Ashton Hewitt, leaving Ryan with a relatively full deck to select from over the coming weeks.

Whether that will be enough to get back into the race for the Final Series remains to be seen. It should certainly help the Dragons build more momentum though.

Even if they miss out on the top three, they will look at a trip to Bristol to take on the Bears in the Challenge Cup quarter-finals as a real opportunity.

Add in their eight players in the Wales Under-20s squad – level with the Scarlets for the most of any region – and there is reason for hope at Rodney Parade.

That has not necessarily been the case for a while.

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