'We have a long history of injuries to developing players who are asked to play injured'
Dean Ryan believes Ross Moriarty’s decision to sign a new deal to stay at the Dragons is a significant success in the director of rugby’s battle to change the perception that players have to move on from the club to break into the Wales squad.
The Dragons are seen as poor relations to Scarlets, Ospreys and Cardiff and last week’s departure of Wales lock Cory Hill to the Blues appeared to confirm this. However, Ryan is adamant Hill’s departure doesn’t truly reflect the progress made by the Dragons in the last twelve months since the ex-England No8 took charge.
The club is enjoying better results and with Wayne Pivac having taken over from Warren Gatland as Wales coach, Ryan believes there is ample opportunity for a Dragons squad that features Moriarty, Aaron Wainwright, Leon Brown and Elliott Dee to impress and change the consensus outside Newport about the Rodney Parade-based outfit.
“Ross Moriarty was someone Wayne wasn’t sure about but we got Ross back to having the confidence that he is a first-choice player and that is the first step for us,” said Ryan to RugbyPass. “In Wales getting into the national team is integral, not only in terms of funding but in aspiration. The players have to believe the club can get them there. That has been our target over the year and our biggest challenge is to retain our current international group and make them believe.
“We have to make Taine Basham and Josh Reynolds into internationals so that the kids coming through believe the Dragons is the right place for them and the right place to play for Wales. There are always people who come and go but I’m really pleased that 90 per cent of our players are staying at the Dragons. Given where the club has been for the last five years that is a major achievement right from the chairman David (Buttress) down to everyone in the squad.
“Last season was right on the tipping point and if the opportunity to move had been there they would have gone. We haven’t really focussed a lot of where we are in the PRO14 (they are fifth in Conference A with five wins from 13). We have concentrated on what we’re trying to do and are we enjoying doing it. It has given everyone a new lease of life that makes them believe they can be successful. I love it here and have never enjoyed coaching more.
“It’s about making people better while in England if I didn’t think someone could get better then I would change them. Here the challenge is to make players in your system better. It is really rewarding when you don’t have that get-out of changing a player.”
The ex-Gloucester and Worcester director of rugby was tasked with revamping the pathway between schools rugby and the England national side at the RFU when he left to take over the Dragons nearly a year ago. Having crossed the Severn Bridge he is uniquely qualified to compare and contrast the English and Welsh systems at a time of crisis for World Rugby in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.
With funding central to the Dragons plans, the current financial crisis is going to have a significant impact and force all the Welsh regions to ensure they are maximising their assets. “There are things that have been done by both organisations – Wales and England – that are simple lessons,” he suggested.
“It’s a unique challenge in Wales in terms of player numbers and there is so much that both countries could learn from each other, although people tend to go their own way. That can be frustrating at times. In the first year (in Wales) things have not run as smoothly as everyone would have wanted and there are tests still to come. There are elements which are still quite naive in terms of what they may look like in the future.
“This year there are a number of different criteria around how you arrive at your funding in Wales, which predominantly revolves around how many Test players you have. You get 80 per cent of the funding for those players (from the Welsh Rugby Union) and if you have ten of them then that is a significant slice.
“If you have just one then you’re a significant way behind everyone else. The mechanism for closing the gap is there and that is crucial, so you need to develop players to get into the Welsh squad to get the funding. While the 80 per cent is attractive, you don’t manage the movement of players (under the system). Ultimately if you look at central contracting models around the world, in New Zealand they ensure they can move people around.
“In Wales, they have gone down the road where they support central contracting but allow a player to choose where he goes. There are a whole host of problems that can come with that, including players in the same position. Managing movement is something that is essential in Wales to get the best out of a small group of players – that is just reality.
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“If players are all at the same place then there isn’t a development system in place that supports the national team and it is part of the process. It’s probably too much to move to that right away and being efficient at development is fundamental for a small playing pool.
“In simple terms, England is better at physical conditioning and Wales is better at playing experiences up to the age of 18 or 19. However, the problem in Wales is the young players don’t transition as well because the conditioning is not very good and therefore the jump to the professional game is enormous. In our region, the resources at that level have been limited but the kids can play rugby and a lot of it.
“When you jump to the English system there is concern about the amount of game time players get up to the age of 23 and yet people have been locked in gyms for years – that is the starkest difference. Somewhere in the middle for both of them would probably be the perfect world. The Welsh challenge is to support development better in physical conditioning and that may be coloured by my own experiences in a region that hasn’t had a lot in terms of funding and development.
“I see a lot of people struggling to make the jump or are seriously injured because they have been accelerated without the training aids to make that move. We work in conflict all the time with development because of lack of resource and you have to try and marry the two together because it’s not a perfect world.
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“We have a long history of injuries to developing players who are asked to play injured or are asked to play and lose confidence because they’re not ready. That comes back to a national governing body which has to be all over the development and support it in the right way with such a small resource group because you cannot afford those kinds of mistakes.”
Being able to ensure squad players get regular game time below regional level is a headache that Welsh rugby has yet to solve – the same is true in England where the second-tier Championship has been told its funding will be severely cut by the RFU.
Ryan explained: “Clubs are in a competitive league and people would prefer to have a 32-year-old who has been around the regions rather than a 21-year-old who is finding his way. That is not unique to Wales and is the same in the Championship in England.
“There are not many competitions that get second-tier rugby done well, with Mitre 10 in New Zealand being the strongest in the world which makes them the best at development. New Zealand control where the players are, amount of game time and the way they play. You could extrapolate that to Wales but that is such a big move and I’m not sure they have the influence or appetite to do it.
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“At the moment in Wales, you have a national team that has had a huge amount of success and limited success recently for the regions. You have to look at how you make best use of the next 50 kids coming through. Ireland does it well with the schools system helping and they have control over their players and do move them around.
“The way we can help Wayne Pivac at the Dragons is to make people better. He is comfortable with the players we have and we have seen that with Leon Brown and Taine Basham who we have made better over the year. That is really important and I have been more relaxed about how were are getting to where we want to be. I wouldn’t be here without the chairman and he is right up there with the best I have worked with like Cecil Duckworth at Worcester.
“There have been three or four times where we have really had to stand strong and he has. David is incredibly engaging and passionate and I genuinely believe that he does for the right reasons, which is not something I can say about other people I have worked for. Getting the ownership of the Dragons back is still top of the agenda to give us control over the direction and that is a central part of why I joined the Dragons.”
Another step forward will have to wait, though, until whatever shortened season is played. That step is a new pitch with a surface having to cater for football and rugby, but it won’t be an artificial one: “The only people I have heard who like plastic pitches are CEOs who don’t have to run on them,” quipped Ryan.
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