Dragons boss Dean Ryan admits his young squad must prepare to face the “hurt” of Heineken Champions Cup rugby next season, but the daunting experience could be key to their long term development.

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Ryan is working to rid the club of its image as the poor relations of Welsh regional rugby and the arrival of Wales internationals Jonah Holmes – from Leicester – and Nick Tomkins – on loan from Saracens – will provide much needed big match experience for the Dragons squad.

While the prospect of being exposed by some of Europe’s big-spending clubs will concern some fans, Ryan has taken a typically bullish standpoint, believing a probable return to the Heineken Cup after a ten-year absence must be embraced not feared. 

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RugbyPass brings you The Dragons Lair, the behind the scenes look at the Welsh region in summer 2018

Although the 24-team format has yet to be officially confirmed, the expanded competition is expected to look that way next season, ensuring that Dragons will qualify due to their current position in Conference A of the Guinness PRO14 (with fourth place Cheetahs ineligible to participate, fifth place Dragons would step up).   

“We will treat the Heineken Cup next season as a wonderful opportunity. Yes, it will hurt and there will be times where we have to face the stark reality of the bigger clubs,” said Ryan to RugbyPass.

“The last thing we would want to do is not let our players have that opportunity and experience it. It is part of their development. You cannot move the Dragons from where they have been without at some stage coming up against better clubs and being exposed.

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“There will be times during that period when numbers in our squad, plus injuries, will make it really challenging, but at the same time what a great opportunity. 

“The talk about how the competition could look next season may give us some pretty hefty opposition. We are going to approach it in a way that we might enjoy it more, while accepting there may be some collateral damage as we develop in it.”

Ryan is operating within strict financial limitations and the disparity between the haves and have not in Europe will be clearly seen in September when Dragons face big-spending Bristol in the 2019/20 European Challenge Cup quarter-final. England prop Kyle Sinckler and Fiji star Semi Radradra now bolster the West Country club which is owned by billionaire Steve Lansdown.

“Our squad, outside the core 27 or 28 players, is on a development trajectory which is how the Dragons have been able to manage on a reduced budget through some lean years,” added Ryan. “Sometimes that is not at the benefit of development. People say it is a chance for players but it is not great when you are thrown in too young into a tournament you are not ready for.

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“What we tried to do last season was stabilise that a little bit and develop people around the edges of a reduced squad. At times when we lost four or five to international rugby – which is great – it does expose our experience from that younger group. Throw in some injuries and the squad has a very different look and feel.

“Creating a stable environment over the next few years will allow those players to develop a little better rather than be thrown in and then discarded. What we don’t see is when a youngster comes in everyone celebrates and four or five games down the road they judge him as an adult and become critical and say he is not very good. 

“Suddenly, that player loses confidence and we want to stabilise all of those things and ensure they get the support needed for their particular journey. We are not a recruitment model and that is a clear distinction from anything I have done in the past. How do you move Bristol forward? You recruit better players. 

“We are adding two or three to our squad to build up our experience but even our internationals are young and so what is important for us to get better is that we keep developing. To do that you have to be more stable by making the core of the group better year on year. If you add two or three you keep taking a step up that ladder. It’s a much longer-term view and that is key.

“We are now a year in and people are saying, ‘You have added some great names, what is the expectation?’ We just have to stabilise all of that and say next year is about being a little bit better without getting carried away.

“We won three games in the last minute and if you take them away it doesn’t look as good a season but at the same time, we made some good strides. 

“We have to become more competitively consistently and next year that narrative becomes harder because we will be in the Heineken Cup and there will be this noise, ‘You have got Nick Tomkins, he is going to do wonders for you’. We have to keep our feet on the ground.

“We have coaches with high potential and I have worked with Mefin Davies and he is one of the best technical scrum coaches. Getting Mefin in to work with our young front row was too good to miss.”

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