The new rugby season is always a special time for fans. With a new season comes fresh hope for fans that improvements will be made in personnel and strides will be made as a team going forward. As a season-ticket holder myself with the Newport Gwent Dragons, I had approached this season with renewed optimism. The arrival of former Welsh internationals Ian Gough and Aled Brew along with former British and Irish Lions Andy Powell and Lee Byrne had created a buzz around Rodney Parade rarely felt in the last few years. Along with them the additions of the experienced prop Boris Stankovich and lock Rynard Landman have added depth and experience to a young squad with great potential. Given the talented youth on disposal in the likes of Hallam Amos, Jack Dixon and Tyler Morgan, these hard-nosed experienced professionals looked like the perfect additions. After an encouraging pre-season, which included a victory over reigning English Premiership champions Northampton, the serious business began with a trip to Galway.
After falling to a narrow defeat to an ever-improving Connacht side, in a game where the Dragons had two men sent to the sin bin, hope was high for the eagerly anticipated first home match of the season – a local derby against the Ospreys. Watching the game from the stands, I was quietly confident that the Dragons could snatch a victory against their local rivals. However, my confidence slowly began to wane as the match wore on. The match was a poor one, littered with handling errors with neither side playing any quality rugby. The Ospreys eventually ran out 17-15 victors through tries from Rhys Webb and Eli Walker, which came more from sharp individual thinking than good collective team play. As for the Dragons, the half-time introduction of 19-year-old fly-half Angus O’Brien did spark something of a fight-back, but only through the boot of the young debutant who kicked four penalties to go with Jason Tovey’s sole effort in the first half. The fact that it took a 19-year-old debutant to spark the Dragons into life emphasised just how poor, a Dragons side that included most of its new big signings, were.
Watching from the stands, it was clear to see that the style of play from the home side was the problem. Over the last year Lyn Jones and his coaches have built a side with a strong defence that has proved hard to break down. However, going forward the side seems to lack creativity with many phases of play consisting of forwards trying to barge their way over the line. When brought down by the opposition, instead of looking to throw it across the line for talented backs such as Tyler Morgan to find and create gaps, the answer seems to be to persevere with forwards who often end up making handling errors as they try and push themselves over the gain line. This unimaginative play comes from poor decision-making, and ultimately makes the Dragons’ patterns of play too predictable. As a result teams like the Ospreys can set themselves up already knowing what is coming in the next phase.
As fans this type of play is uneasy on the eye, but is something that Dragons fans have become all too familiar with. Contrast this with the style of play incorporated by the Scarlets, who prefer to play running rugby by looking to get the ball out as quickly as possible to their backs who use the width of the field to find the space to score tries, and you see why many of us Dragons fans have grown so frustrated. The Scarlets have consequently become one of the best rugby sides to watch with their invigorating style of play, and although this style of play may leave them vulnerable defensively, their attacking prowess more than makes up for that and excites fans in the process. The reality is that victorious teams have followed this blueprint for success, with English champions Northampton strutting their way to the title last season by giving the ball to dangerous runners like George North and Ben Foden who can spot the gaps and punish opposition teams with their speed and agility. While the Dragons are built upon a resilient defence, this is not the way to win rugby matches. With runners such as Hallam Amos and Lee Byrne there is no reason why this side should feel afraid to throw caution to the wind and start playing a more expansive brand of rugby that will get bums off seats and more likely bring success to a struggling region.