‘Bring Your Fire’ is the Dragons’ marketing tagline in the social media era. The hashtag accompanies all announcements of note at the Gwent region, but its potency has been akin to starting a campfire in the rain in recent years.
Under Bernard Jackman, the affable former Ireland hooker, the Dragons won only 11 times in 44 games, and the coaches that preceded him – Darren Edwards, Lyn Jones and Kingsley Jones – could only sporadically lift the region.
They rarely troubled the giddy heights of mid-table in the PRO12 and latterly PRO14. From the 2015/16 season onwards, they have won just 15 of 86 league games, enough to test super fans of the sunniest disposition.
Now under Welsh Rugby Union rule, the region has ushered in another era in the imposing form of Dean Ryan, the former England and Wasps No8. Unafraid to speak his mind, the well-travelled Bristol, Gloucester and Worcester coach left his role as head of international player development at England rugby with a stinging parting shot earlier this year and work started in earnest pumping up the tyres of a region starved of success.
Ryan has cut a pragmatic tone in his early assessments of what can be achieved and despite modest financial resources – the region had to convince the WRU for a £3.4million recruitment kitty – he has local talent to work with. As we move towards December, there is quiet optimism of a region taking baby steps.
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With four wins in eight games, including a first league win on the road since 2015, Ryan has brokered a period of relative stability.
Integral to the improvement has been Sam Davies, who has added authority and creativity, lifting half-back partner Rhodri Williams’ game, while a pack bolstered by Elliot Dee and Cory Hill – once fit – will add heft and guile.
Where there is greatest reason for optimism, however, is in the back row where their cup runneth over. It is arguably the strongest regional unit in Wales.
Headlining is Aaron Wainwright, the 22-year-old who announced himself on the world stage with a series of increasingly assured RWC performances to back up Robin McBryde’s assertion that he bore similarities to his new breakdown and defence coach at national level, Sam Warburton.
Ross Moriarty, a ‘marquee signing’ grafted at No8 in the absence of the stupendously gifted former Dragon Taulupe Faletau, but it’s beneath the surface you will find a golden seam with the potential to join that duo at a rarefied level.
For his part, Newport-born Wainwright, who will start at No8 for Wales against the Barbarians on Saturday, has already been in and around Rodney Parade for rehab on a hamstring injury and Ryan likes the cut of his gib.
“Aaron’s impact at the World Cup was huge. What sets him apart is his ability to go from zero to full speed in a split second, which is quite something. The try he scored against France was unbelievable – it made everyone look like they were standing still. The attention and scrutiny since Japan is all new at the moment but I’ve heard great things about him.”
Another Welsh call-up who has impressed under Wayne Pivac this week for his ‘immense’ strength over the ball is Ollie Griffiths, who finally has the chance to shine in a Welsh jersey. Long earmarked as a player of Test quality were it not for ill-timed injury, Griffiths, at 24, has time on his side and Ryan likes what he has seen.
“I was surprised how good Ollie was. He can play with a No7 or 8 on his back and has obviously been robbed playing on a higher stage through timing of injuries. His impact and influence on games has been clear to see.”
— Dragons ? (@dragonsrugby) November 29, 2019
Putting bums on seats – and lifting them off them this season – is Taine Basham, who at just 20 has celebrated his explosive start at Dragons with a week in the Welsh camp this week before returning to Rodney Parade for Saturday’s game with Zebre.
A European hat-trick against Castres and a man-of-the-match performance underlined his potential and Ryan, not prone to hyperbole, was effusive in his praise.
“Taine just has this raw ability to improve very quickly. He takes information on board easily and adds it to his game without losing the core understanding of what his strengths are – basically, a high impact player with explosive power. He’s not a steady 70 per cent type-of-player, he will always bring flashes of dynamism at some point in the game.”
— Dragons ? (@dragonsrugby) November 28, 2019
Having spent two years at the head of the England pathway programme, Ryan has firm ideas about developing young players and has already been in discussion with Pivac about Basham’s progress.
“We both believe his long-term future is at openside. At the moment he sees the game as a No8 which is 10 yards away from the play but at openside, you’re in the middle all the time on the deck and have to make much more instinctive decisions. It means a steep learning curve before he is exposed to the highest level”
Ryan thinks Basham has the mentality and attitude to progress in the game if he works on his consistency week-to-week. “I thought last week was the best I’d seen him play.
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“He attacked the breakdown and was a physical presence in defence, all things that don’t necessarily attract headlines but are key to his improvement. In time, Taine is the sort of player who can shape the game the way he wants to”
With a week of training at the Vale under a new coaching team, Ryan knows Basham will have soaked up information like a sponge. “For a 20-year-old, sitting with Sam Warburton is going to be a great learning experience to become a better player. I’m keen to hear his impressions on his week with Wales.”
Ryan expects a near full complement back after the Baa-Baas game, and with Nic Cudd, Harrison Keddie, Ben Fry and the injured Lennon Greggains, he can expect to earn his crust selecting Dragons’ No6, 7 and 8. Such is his range of options that there is even idle paper-talk about Moriarty’s long-term future with the region.
Ryan is circumspect. It’s a conundrum coaches like to have. “The players are all back next week and I’ll have to start selecting. We need to create some pressure and the back row is definitely somewhere we have genuine pressure.”
Time for the industrial strength aspirin. Can Ryan become the region’s firestarter? Only time will tell.
WATCH: RugbyPass went behind the scenes at Dragons during the Bernard Jackman era
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