CHRIS KIRWAN SAYS: Third place still vital for Dragons, even without Heineken Cup incentive
NOT even the Heineken Cup rumpus diminishes the importance of tomorrow's derby at Rodney Parade.
The significance of finishing at least third has been drummed into the Welsh regions over the past few years.
Achieve that goal and you have passage to the premier European competition and trips to Toulouse's Stade Ernest-Wallon, Clermont's Parc des Sports Marcel Michelin, Leicester's Welford Road and Munster's Thomond Park.
Fail and it's Mogliano's Stadio Comunale Maurizio Quaggia, Cavalieri Prato's Stadio Enrico Chersoni and Bucharest's Stadium Arcul de Triumf.
It's rugby's equivalent of 'Thursday nights, Channel Five'.
Newport Gwent Dragons have been in the Amlin Challenge Cup since 2011 and at the time their demotion was a relief after being whitewashed by Toulouse, Wasps and Glasgow.
Going up against Europe's big guns isn't easy, as the Scarlets and Cardiff Blues showed last year.
But absence makes the heart grow fonder and it would be great for the Dragons to once again be at the top table.
Of course, the current method for getting back into the Heineken Cup is part of the problem, leading to the English and French plotting a breakaway tournament.
They think it's too easy for the Celts and Italians to qualify and would like to cull the number of teams from 24 to 20 with places earned by league placing.
As I wrote last week, this is a stance that I sympathise with and would strengthen both European competitions and the Pro12.
Whether that will happen, whether there will be a Heineken Cup at all and what the financial implications will be for the Welsh regions remains unclear.
ERC bigwigs have called a meeting for October 23 (why so late?) to try and break the deadlock but this could run and run.
That will leave us pondering what a third-place finish means – but this is not just about Heineken Cup rugby for the Dragons.
For too long we have been accustomed to being patronised by the Ospreys, Blues and Scarlets and being treated like the runt of the litter.
The debate rages on about the region's name and whether 'Newport' and 'Gwent' should be dropped but more pressing is trying the shake off the 'And finally' prefix that accompanies their action on news bulletins and highlights programmes.
This is a matter of personal pride for the Dragons players, not just Heineken Cup rugby.
There is a feel-good factor at Rodney Parade and progress seems to being made under Lyn Jones, even though we are just two games into the season.
Tomorrow is crucial to maintain that momentum and to keep pushing forward.
Last season the Dragons felt Cardiff Blues were the weak link and harboured hopes of leapfrogging them.
But they were playing catch-up once the region from the capital triumphed at Rodney Parade in a hugely demoralising game in round three of the Pro12. Another defeat at the Arms Park on Boxing Day ended all hopes of finishing third.
The Dragons need to keep in the mix against their Welsh rivals and victory tomorrow would mean it is the Scarlets and Blues that are feeling the early pressure.
It's not just Heineken Cup rugby that comes with being first, second or third; winning rugby leads to closer scrutiny from Wales coaches with calls more likely to go against candidates playing for the fourth-placed region.
So even if it doesn't lead to Toulon rather than Reading, being third Welsh region would be sign of progress and cause for celebration come May.
The season is not yet a month old but tomorrow the Dragons could show their rivals that they mean business.
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