THERE were plenty of times last season that it was said the Dragons were pointless, thankfully that has changed in 2022/23 despite some expected shortcomings eventually being revealed.
The Rodney Parade club are taking stock after a challenging second block of the campaign that has had supporters suffering a familiar feeling of dread.
The Dragons sit with just Zebre beneath them in the United Rugby Championship table and are bottom of the Welsh Shield, with the hope of avoiding the usual tag of Wales’ worst set to be scuppered by the Scarlets’ resurgence.
It has been a miserable run of shoddy displays and wasted opportunities yet there is still reason for cautious optimism under a promising and enterprising head coach who is laying some foundations.
The table doesn’t lie. The Dragons are where we’d expect them to be.
— BKT United Rugby Championship (URC) (@URCOfficial) January 30, 2023
The first chunk of the United Rugby Championship probably got us a little overexcited after Dai Flanagan took the reins and led the side to wins against Munster, the Ospreys and Zebre.
After winning just two games in 2021/22, there was hope that the side were really on the up.
Sadly, the autumn break stopped the momentum and the Dragons have endured a torrid and draining 10-game streak featuring a solitary win at Pau, a draw at the Lions and eight losses.
The Six Nations has come at a good time, the squad needs a breather.
January was a poor month for the Dragons with two awful performances against the Scarlets and Glasgow, one ugly but commendable win in Pau, a loss to the Bulls when running on empty and an infuriating defeat to the Lions that featured 45 minutes of dross and 35 minutes of excellence.
Flanagan remains upbeat but this has been a section of the season to show the size of the task ahead, one that will probably get even bigger with the financial challenges facing Welsh professional club rugby.
The Dragons are clearly much better after the miserable final full year under Dean Ryan that featured just two wins on the road.
It is telling that they haven’t been pointless very often – they have left the field with something to show for their efforts on 11 out of 17 occasions.
Just four of those have been the points for a win, they drew at the Lions, have had four consolation bonuses (one with the addition of a four-try bonus) and twice have scored four tries when beaten by more than seven points.
Often beaten but, unlike the second half of last season, rarely humiliated.
That is a sign of the character and resilience in the squad but the toughest task is turning narrow defeats into tight victories.
There are four clear missed opportunities so far this season – the European Challenge Cup draw at the Lions and the return fixture in Ystrad Mynach, Pau at home, Cardiff on Boxing Day.
It needs to be pointed out that opponents look at games in similar ways; Munster were poor but led until Rio Dyer’s solo cracker, the Ospreys were awful when they had a two-man advantage at the death, Pau failed to make the most of scrum dominance in France.
So why have the Dragons endured a torrid block?
Firstly, the schedule has taken its toll with the three-game tour to South Africa stressing them mentally and physically ahead of Christmas.
They then had Cardiff on Boxing Day, a six-day turnaround to the Scarlets on New Year’s Day, a five-day turnaround to the Bulls.
The Dragons have a small squad and have been tested frequently so far this season; they have had seven six-day turnarounds but just four of seven days and three of eight.
“To have a good team you need a good squad,” said Glasgow boss Franco Smith and that rings true at Rodney Parade, where he used to play for Newport.
The Dragons have a formidable XV and arguably the best alternative XV for years but the depth chart is shallow.
Positive Dai is keen to stress the talent on the books but last weekend in an awful performance against Glasgow they lacked serious international quality without Bradley Roberts, Elliot Dee, Leon Brown, Will Rowlands, Ross Moriarty, Aaron Wainwright, Ollie Griffiths, Gonzalo Bertranou, Rio Dyer plus the ever-dependable Harri Keddie and Angus O’Brien.
Added to that, they need a lot more from 2022 summer signings JJ Hanrahan, Rhodri Jones, Rob Evans and Sio Tomkinson, who I feel is more of a wing than a centre.
The Dragons’ budget means that they will always be stretched, a situation that will get worse before it gets better due to all Welsh clubs having to cut costs.
And that is a second factor that has played its part in the Dragons’ struggles.
A raft of players have been putting their bodies on the line while facing uncertainty over their futures because of the wait for a new funding agreement with the Welsh Rugby Union. It’s February and still the green light is yet to be given for contract renewals.
Flanagan has started to have conversations with his squad with the aim of being able to act swiftly when deals can be put in front of players.
He’ll have to trim and is facing tough calls.
Is third-choice loosehead Rob Evans value for money when Josh Reynolds has been a fringe figure?
Can he justify having Sam Davies on the books when Hanrahan has a long-term deal, Will Reed is coming through and O’Brien is there for emergencies?
Ollie Griffiths is superb when fit but is injury-prone, how much should they offer him?
All of this will be carried out while trying to ensure the Dragons have a strong final block of the campaign and there is still plenty to play for even if, bizarrely, there is just one more game in Newport.
They will try to given Leinster and Ulster scares in Ireland, Connacht needs to be a win on home soil, there are derbies against the Ospreys and Scarlets plus knockout European rugby at Glasgow.
The Dragons ruffled a few feathers in the first block of the season and need to ensure they aren’t pointless in the run-in.
Then starts Flanagan's summer work of really making them his side.