Time to fix the problems facing the Dragons

Date published: January 17 2017

Seventh.  

That’s the highest finishing position in the Celtic League/PRO12 that Newport Gwent Dragons have been able to manage in the last 11 years.

Over that same period of time, they’ve recorded just four wins in 30 Heineken Cup/Champions Cup appearances and have not featured in the tournament since 2011.

The Dragons showed plenty of promise in their first two seasons after being founded in 2003, finishing third in 2004 and fourth in 2005, but positives have been few and far between since then.

It has led to the region, which is 50 percent owned by the Welsh Rugby Union, 50 precent in the hands of Newport RFC, perennially struggling in the bottom half of the PRO12 table.

Their historic home of Rodney Parade, which seats 8,500, has barely been half-full all season, with home matches averaging just 4,413 in attendance and a season-high of 6,746 for the visit of the Ospreys significantly bolsters that number.

Furthermore, the surface on show at Rodney Parade, a ground which is shared by two other teams, has bordered on unplayable at times this season. It requires significant investment but the Dragons are an unappetising team to watch, partly illustrated by those attendance figures, and raising the funds to do something about it is not easy when the turnstiles aren’t whizzing around.

It’s a vicious circle.

The team is underfunded, not just in relation to the Irish and Scottish sides in the competition, but also in contrast to the other Welsh regions and though the WRU are equal shareholders in the team, there are no tangible benefits to that involvement, such as increased funding from the national union or players who are on National Dual Contracts pushed towards Rodney Parade.

Hallam Amos and Tyler Morgan are the only two dual contracted players at the Dragons currently, but it is their talent which demonstrates the potential, frustratingly under-realised, that the Dragons have as a team.

Wales have been competitive at the age-grade levels in recent years, thanks in large to the physical nature of their sides, but the number of players who are technically-ready to step up to senior rugby upon graduating from the age-grades has been limited. That is, however, a trend that has been bucked somewhat at the Dragons.

It is not just Amos and Morgan, although their virtues are extolled nationally, it is also the likes of Elliot Dee, Leon Brown, Ollie Griffiths, Harrison Keddie and Ashton Hewitt, all of whom have emerged from the Dragons’ academy with well-rounded skill sets and the capability of being effective performers at the senior level.

Retaining gifted players is no easy task for the side from Gwent, however, with home-grown talents like Taulupe Faletau, Dan Lydiate and Luke Charteris all leaving the region in recent years and the fear among the Rodney Parade faithful must surely be that their promising youngsters will follow suit and head abroad or to other regions in the coming years.

All of the growing pains that the Dragons currently endure, blooding talented prospects and making do with cut-price recruitment of veteran players, will be for nothing if the off-field issues surrounding the side cannot be resolved.

Stuart Davies, CEO of the Dragons, made it clear last year that they were looking for external investment, to end the current halfway house of ownership that they have between the WRU and Newport RFC.

Earlier this month, Davies reiterated his desire to see this happen, claiming that offers of investment had been tabled, following statements from WRU CEO Martyn Phillips that the WRU may be forced to take over the region should no new investment be found.

The pressure is on from Phillips too, who said: “They are out there looking for new investment. That’s always a tough place to be whether you are a sports team or a business.

“We and they are working very closely and very hard on that, but the closer next season comes, the more urgency comes into that.”

There is no doubt Phillips’ comments will cause anger among Dragons fans who want full independence from the WRU but as with, unfortunately, very many things within Welsh rugby at the moment, it will be impossible to please everyone and whatever the conclusion, many will feel alienated by the decision.

Nothing breeds enthusiasm more than success, however, and success is something that is impossible for the Dragons as things stand.

Former captain Michael Owen has even suggested the Dragons could be moved to Pontypridd or north Wales if new investors want them to. It’s a bold suggestion but with the improving fortunes of RGC 1404 and the lack of a PRO12 side in the north of the country, it is not one without merit.

It would mean starting from scratch and throwing away the last 14 years of the Newport Gwent Dragons, leaving a region of Wales that has historically produced – and continues to produce – players of immense talent.

The Dragons aren’t irrevocably broken. Granted, they aren’t going to pass their MOT anytime soon, but the foundations are there.

Davies and the region are right to take their time, even with an apparent deadline looming, over the tabled offers of investment. It is not enough for new board members to come on board, buy out the shares of the WRU in the side and expect everything to be hunky dory.

Newport County’s lease at Rodney Parade makes a synthetic surface impossible, due to regulations in the football leagues, making investment in improved drainage and potentially a hybrid surface, such as the one Wasps use in the Premiership, a priority.

The stadium is owned by Newport RFC, which would potentially prove troublesome if their share in the region were also bought out and is yet another turn to navigate in the labyrinth of Welsh regional rugby.

Retaining key players and attracting new ones to the region doesn’t come cheap, either, but it’s a case of speculating to accumulate and whilst many will never buy into the region, there are enough people in the area for whom the loyalty to rugby, above all others, is there to sustain a professional side.

Finding the right investors to bankroll that kind of ambition won’t be easy but if they are out there, they must be aggressively sought out.

Given the opposition to central control in Wales, the prospect of the WRU taking over complete control of the Dragons doesn’t enthuse you with optimism for the region’s future, unless the governing body’s attitude towards the side changed significantly.

If the Dragons were to become the favoured sons of the WRU, which seems unlikely, the increased funding and ability to tie down current players on NDCs could see the side rise up the PRO12 table and become the fitting outlet for the talented players the region produces.

Either way, the Dragons needs to commit to a new ownership in order to develop. Treading water between two different schools of thought has held them back for long enough.

In a world where provincial loyalties are so strong and the name and logo of a professional sporting entity can cause such fierce opposition, there is no way of pleasing everyone.

It’s time for the Dragons to pick a path and walk it, lest they fade away once and for all.

by Alex Shaw

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