DRAGONS V ZEBRE (Tonight, KO 7pm)

NEWPORT Gwent Dragons kick off their season at Rodney Parade tonight knowing that they need to come flying out of the blocks.

The region start their RaboDirect Pro12 campaign against new Italian franchise Zebre – widely tipped to be the basement outfit like their predecessors Aironi.

The Dragons know that victory is essential as they bid to avoid a repeat of last season when they were forced to play catch-up with their Welsh rivals in the race for Heineken Cup qualification.

That hope was extinguished by a miserable run-in at Rodney Parade.

Connacht, Treviso and Lein-ster’s second string all took the spoils from encounters in Newport, meaning the Dragons finished with a whimper rather than closing in on Cardiff Blues.

This time the Dragons want to be frontrunners in their race with their regional rivals so it will be a hammer blow if they do not claim at least four points this evening.

Newport County have started life at Rodney Parade with three league wins and the Dragons don’t want to fall at the first hurdle and become the first side to taste competitive defeat on their own turf.

“We played catch-up last year and that’s when you force things and make mistakes,” said scrum-half Wayne Evans .

“I don’t think that any of us played well at the end of last season so individually we need to pick it up and come together as a team.

“I certainly set higher standards for my own performances than I hit in the run-in and I am desperate to start off in much better form.

“We can’t have any excuses – it’s been a tough pre-season, we have all worked hard and we are all prepared.

“It’s been a good build-up and the whole squad is itching to get under way now.

“The pressure is on us and we need to respond early on because Zebre will be just like Aironi – they are hard to shake off and make life hell if you fall behind to them.”

The Dragons beat London Irish in their final pre-season friendly and head coach Darren Edwards has demanded they show the same steel that sent the Aviva Premiership side packing.

“The squad has worked incredibly hard in pre-season and displayed a positive attitude and mental toughness. If they show that tonight then we will be well set,” he said.

“One of the biggest disappointments of last season was our lack of intensity at home. We have an obligation to put that right.

“We hit the pitch running against Irish and need to show that same energy all season long, starting tonight.”