CHRIS KIRWAN: Dragons need to find a new way to halt the slide
9:57am Thursday 10th April 2014 in Sport
"Finishing 11th in the Celtic League is not acceptable," declared Newport Gwent Dragons boss Lyn Jones when looking back at last season's finish in the RaboDirect Pro12.
I am sure I am not the only one fearing a repeat after watching the Rodney Parade region's season hit the skids.
Hopefully the ninth-placed Dragons will rally in the final four fixtures to hold off the challenge of Cardiff Blues and Treviso and possibly even sneak back above Edinburgh and Connacht.
But the fixtures look tricky – away to Treviso, Ospreys at the Millennium Stadium, the Scarlets in Llanelli and then home to Treviso on last day.
This season has been much better than 2012/13 and yet current form suggests that the Dragons could end up with the same result.
The first half of the Pro12 campaign saw them accumulate 24 points from 11 games (average 2.2) and the subsequent 7 fixtures have yielded just 7 (average 1).
Between September and December they kept their tally ticking along with just two pointless encounters – away to Munster and the Ospreys. From January to now they have had nothing to show for their efforts against Cardiff Blues, Leinster, Ulster and Connacht.
Maybe it is evidence of the age-old adage of a fresh boss bringing better fortunes; the bounce and positivity provided by the arrivals director of rugby Lyn Jones and his assistant Kingsley Jones prompted an upturn in fortunes.
It was all smiles after the Boxing Day win against Cardiff Blues but the frowns that followed the New Year's Day defeat to the same opponents have stuck.
Were the Joneses just getting a tune out of an average bunch? There's probably an element of truth in that and they will be grateful that they have had the chance to shape their squad with their own recruitment drive.
But the coaches also need to adapt.
As Jones says himself elsewhere in this paper, the Dragons profited from being underestimated earlier in the campaign; their opponents were taken aback by the feisty approach at the breakdown.
In 2012/13 the region had been soft but in the early stages of 2013/14 they were streetwise.
Last week's loss to Edinburgh was down to an infuriatingly blunt attack but they have hardly dazzled all season, it was just that a suffocating defence made up for it.
Apologies for going stats crazy again but in the first half of the season they scored 196 points and 14 tries (average 17.8 and 1.3) and they shipped 189 points and 15 tries (average 17.2 and 1.4).
The second half so far has seen their averages in attack change slightly to 16.6 points and 1.6 tries but in defence they have soared to 26.4 points and 2.6 tries.
At the start of the season the Dragons were kicking well and chasing hard while using their feisty breakdown approach to win penalties.
Yet in recent weeks they have been undone at Rodney Parade by Connacht, who just steamrollered them at the set piece, and Edinburgh, who soaked up the pressure by stopping the lateral Dragons on the gain line and maintaining their discipline before grasping their two openings.
Few passages of play can have been more frustrating that the 11th-minute attack against the Scots when there were 10 phases of the Dragons being stopped five metres out – and no closer – following a close-range scrum before the ball was flung to the left wing where Hallam Amos was choke-tackled.
If the defence is leaking then the attack needs to have more oomph and the direct running of Aled Brew will certainly provide a welcome boost next season.
But in the mean time the Dragons need to find a way of getting their part of the scoreboard ticking or it could be a painful final four fixtures.
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