Regional rugby returns this weekend and for the Dragons that means a home game against Edinburgh on Sunday. The region have lost their last four successive Guinness Pro 14 fixtures, but Geraint Powell says form has to be placed in long-term context and that only time will enable them to end years of failure.
The widely expected departure last week of defence coach Hendre Marnitz – a respected coach but one over-complicating the defence of a team at the wrong end of the table and with lots of new players still trying to gel – has thrown into sharp focus the state of the evolution at the Dragons region since the Welsh Rugby Union takeover in 2017.
Following the WRU’s rescue, the initial talk was of a three-year evolution to turn around the long ailing region that had become increasingly uncompetitive on and off the pitch for a decade and more.
The commercial side of selling a five-year or longer turnaround would be difficult. But it did feel that declaring even three years would require an implausibly helpful tailwind in terms of recruitment, squad cohesion, injury lists, Welsh regional rugby progress, problems at competitor teams and even refereeing decisions!
The obstacles to an expedited turnaround, although diverse, are generally understood if seldom analysed as a totality.
There are no ‘special measures’ provision in Welsh regional rugby to turnaround a failing rugby region until they reach the standard of the next worst region.
The new Dragons would not temporarily be receiving all available additional WRU funding of the regions, let alone a short-term transfer of some existing WRU funding from other regions.
The last thing that ‘debt fatigued’ funding directors at other regions would ever voluntarily sanction is the WRU departing governance impartiality to throw resources at their new subsidiary, complete with contractual safeguards.
When the Celtic Warriors became the first of the five rugby regions to get into financial trouble, the WRU, having always argued that no more than four regions were affordable, allowed them to fail without any bail-out.
The old Dragons were operating under a lowly £3.5 million playing squad budget, and of necessity they tried to drag down better funded opponents into a dogfight. It has long been difficult to have any efficient regional wage structure in the ‘open market’ under the old so-called Gatland’s Law and without salary banding at the regions.
The dual central contracts established in 2014 to aid the regions were scarce at Rodney Parade, the obvious candidates either having long departed or subsequently rejected them e.g. Dan Lydiate, Luke Charteris, Taulupe Faletau.
Yet even in the absence of any ‘special measures’ provisions, the playing budget of the new Dragons did reputedly increase to around £4.5 million in 2018-19.
But that was part of a wider general and impartial increase in the WRU funding of the regional game to be reset and would not narrow the gap with the other regions, whose playing budgets now all exceed a reputed £6 million. So, there has been no domestic relative financial improvement.
Other union-controlled Guinness Pro14 competitors have not been in domestic conflict with their union in the last decade. They have kept getting stronger.
And, of course, the English and French clubs have had significant infusions of broadcaster income from BT Sport and Canal+ respectively.
Opportunities for relative, as opposed to absolute, improvement are limited in terms of WRU funding and central competition platform income. More so, since the future risk is that future WRU regional funding will be more performance-based and the other three regions are currently better placed to target this. The new Dragons, then, need to improve their decentralised income.
It may well be that the old Dragons could be improved upon in terms of decentralised sponsorship, but it is never easy marketing and monetising a long-time unsuccessful rugby team.
Given the failure to properly re-order Welsh rugby for the professional era, attracting significant new private equity has long been a problem.
The WRU won’t want a ‘benefactor’ model, with all the sustainability problems with structural loss-making and a future potential exit cliff edge.
Any successful rugby team needs “affinity” and “success” to efficiently grow crowds, hospitality and sponsors in terms of volume and pricing.
The new Dragons inherited historic problems on both fronts, plus new Dragons stakeholder frustration from the Newport RFC tradition at the final professional rugby outcome.
The obvious potential income improvement relative to the other Welsh regions would be to redevelop Rodney Parade and, in particular, the northern “cabbage patch” end.
However, Rodney Parade is technically not even owned by the new Dragons.
It also takes years to progress such a redevelopment through to an increased income stream flowing though, with all the usual considerations in relation to funding the capital costs alone or sharing the risk/reward with financiers or commercial partners.
The new Dragons might be able to spend more efficiently, from shared back office functions with the WRU/other regions to achieving more efficient wage structures across the regions, but again this is unlikely to give the new Dragons any domestic competitive financial advantage.
The upshot is that so far, and for the foreseeable future, the new Dragons will have to punch well above their financial weight.
Now, few sporting teams punch at their actual financial weight, either generally or due to transient form. Most teams are either punching above or below expectations, but it is difficult to punch above your weight with a squad low on confidence and lacking cohesion due to heavy player recruitment.
The new head coach, Bernard Jackman, operated through 2017-18 with an inherited squad.
It was arguably even weaker than the previous season due to departures and the Ed Jackson sad retirement, despite the arrival of veterans Gavin Henson and Zane Kirchner.
A promising September 2017 but a subsequent horrific injury list meant that, by the New Year, the priority was young player development so that a number of disproportionately expensive senior fringe players could be off-loaded over the summer to help fund the new recruitment.
Mostly, but not exclusively, they were out of contract players. A number failed or struggled to find professional rugby contracts elsewhere.
Summer recruitment in 2018 was surprisingly successful, aided by the revised ‘Gatland’s Law’, although there was inevitably a somewhat scattergun approach in relation to out of contract senior Welsh exiles and equally some punts on promising players untested at this level.
Having to offer Ross Moriarty a regional contract instead of a dual central contract to ensure his required capture had a budgetary impact.
Clearly, the new Dragons would have looked far healthier with Owen Williams and Josh Adams in their ranks this season and with Shaun Edwards acting as a defence consultant, but the budget is what it is.
This season has not, so far, seen a rapid improvement from undoubtedly a stronger on-paper squad. The integration of new players has been slower than hoped for, the slow gelling into an effective game plan and lack of cohesion particularly exacerbated by the lack of continuity in the No.10 jersey.
The attack has been slowly improving, and now a more aggressive defence must get simpler and more resilient.
There will probably be significant further recruitment next summer to better balance the overall squad and address several current problem positions, although it will undoubtedly need to be funded by space in the wage bill freed up by expected retirements and departures.
There are no shortcuts, and ultimately it will remain a difficult exercise for chairman David Buttress in managing stakeholder and potential stakeholder expectations.
It is particularly exasperating for long-time fans of the old Dragons, frustrated by over a decade of relative decline until the 2017 denouement and perhaps the most reluctant to admit the scale of the problems that brought down the old business.
To compound matters, and not without irony, Newport was the city in Wales where a benefactor – Tony Brown – rapidly turned around a failing pre-regions professional rugby club in 1998 by throwing copious amounts of cash, including on Springboks, in the era of a much lower professional rugby cost base.
A similar turnaround under a union model, especially a ‘hard’ union model with no ‘special measures’ to financially expedite, is in contrast a much slower burn.
Patience may be a virtue, but for stakeholders at the Dragons it also happens to be a necessity.
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