CHRIS KIRWAN: Dragons need to hold their nerve in final furlong
IT'S crunch time in Newport Gwent Dragons' season, regardless of whether qualification for Europe's frontline competition is up for grabs.
Teams are entering the final stages of the RaboDirect Pro12 and the Rodney Parade region's efforts in their last seven games will dictate whether baby steps or lengthy strides have been made.
The stats back up the feeling that this campaign has been a drastic improvement on the miserable 2012/13.
The Dragons have already matched last term's tally of six wins and 28 points, they are still averaging 1.4 tries per game while shipping 1.7 compared to last year's 3.3, have enjoyed derby successes against the Scarlets and Cardiff Blues while they also edged out title-chasing Ulster and Glasgow.
All of that means that they have a chance to improve on their 11th-placed finish – they sit seventh and have a pretty friendly run-in with just one encounter with a team hunting the playoffs, their Millennium Stadium encounter with the Ospreys.
That, of course, could mean that we head into the closing month of the season with dreams of a return to the European top table.
Encouraging sounds are being made about establishing a replacement for the Heineken Cup, even if the detail is lacking.
The rather large issue of broadcast rights still needs to be sorted with BT and Sky needing to agree a compromise and then there is the funding and governance.
But IF a new 20-team tournament is in place then the Dragons will spend the final furlongs of 2013/14 battling with the Scarlets, Edinburgh and Connacht for the final Pro12 spot.
Whether the Rodney Parade region is currently more suited to a second-tier competition is another matter altogether, and ALL the Welsh regions are taking pea shooters to gunfights because of funding shortfalls.
But the prestige of mixing with Toulon, Clermont, Leicester and Saracens would be a pretty handsome reward for a much-improved season.
Sunday's game against Connacht at Rodney Parade is a chance for the Dragons to put the heat on their rivals but a quick glance down will also show that it is a dangerous few months.
Treviso, in 11th, are just eight points back on the Dragons. Now is not the time for Lyn Jones' men to stumble.
IT was marvellous to watch Exeter head coach Rob Baxter celebrating wildly in the stands when the final whistle signalled the Chiefs' victory against Northampton in the final of the LV= Cup last Sunday.
The Sandy Park boss was speechless when interviewed on the pitch after the game after his club had won the first major trophy in 143 years.
Just four seasons ago Baxter wasn't quite so lost for words after his Championship side were outmuscled by Newport in the British and Irish Cup, complaining of the Black and Ambers' rough tactics at Rodney Parade.
It just shows how far the Chiefs have come in a short space of time thanks to shrewd recruitment, investment in facilities and a thriving academy.
It is a blueprint that Newport Gwent Dragons would love to follow, but they also need to be given a chance and the current level of funding denies them that opportunity.
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