CHRIS KIRWAN SAYS: Plenty left in Dragons' tank
11:00am Thursday 6th September 2012 in Sport
AS headlines go, the one on the official RaboDirect Pro12 website was pretty misleading.
“Edwards backs Dragons’ title chances,” it declared after the comprehensive win against Zebre.
Having been present at the head coach’s post-match press conference I can assure you that he wasn’t laying down the gauntlet to the Ospreys, Leinster, Munster and Ulster in a Churchillian manner.
But he was understandably thrilled that the Dragons had secured a five-point haul from their first game of the season – and even more excited about the potential of his squad.
Of course, the real test will come on Saturday when the region head to a packed Royal Dublin Society to take on the northern hemisphere’s best club side.
But there is cause for cautious optimism after the Dragons recorded a bonus point victory despite not really firing at their best.
It must be remembered that they headed into the game on the back of four successive Pro12 losses, three of them at Rodney Parade.
Victory was demanded against Zebre and they delivered in comprehensive style – it was uncharted territory for the home faithful to be watching a league game meander towards the final whistle with their side in total control.
There were some real plus points, notably the way that Jon Evans and Jevon Groves performed given that the former only learned he was starting an hour before kick-off (because of Wayne Evans ’ back injury) and the latter was in the unfamiliar position of openside.
But it’s often said that the best time to be critical is after a good victory and plenty of areas for improvement will have been highlighted this week.
At times Zebre bossed possession and were not put under sustained pressure by multi-phases attacks.
Their defence was excellent and they were cutthroat from turnovers, but the Dragons didn’t actually create an awful lot.
Nor were their two megastars – Toby Faletau and Dan Lydiate – at their majestic best.
Regardless of the result at Leinster on Saturday, the coaches will be looking for a step up in performance as they build towards the first derby against Cardiff Blues.
They have some lofty aims this season and are determined to secure the return of Heineken Cup rugby to Rodney Parade but it’s fair to say that a title push isn’t on their radar just yet.
Last week I bestowed the value of the Dragons adopting a pragmatic approach when it comes to their first two away games of the campaign. Traditionally their trips over the Irish Sea to take on Leinster and Munster have very little reward for their efforts.
This doesn’t mean they are raising the white flag but home games take priority.
This is understandable and squad management is a real virtue whether in the Principality Premiership or Pro12 – there is no way that a first-choice XV can make it from September to May unscathed so mixing and matching is a must.
But it cannot be ignored that ammunition is being provided for club officials in England and France by their counterparts in Wales, Ireland, Italy and Scotland.
The English and French are unhappy that the Pro12 clubs are able to treat certain league encounters like a testimonial, giving game time to fringe players and having a look at youngsters.
The threat of relegation and the need to qualify for the Heineken Cup denies them that luxury and they want changes to be made to the Pro12.
You can see their point when Leinster’s second string are getting drubbed by the Scarlets, Cardiff Blues are sending kids to Connacht (though in fairness they recorded a terrific win) or Zebre are opting not to risk their big Italian stars against a Dragons side that finished ninth last year so that they are fully-loaded in Parma this weekend.
There are counter-arguments to the Anglo-French and Leinster would say that they have a squad big enough to share the appearances around – and their success while fighting on two fronts last season would back that up.
Nor would they be particularly bothered by needing to qualify for the Heineken Cup through league placing as neither Leinster or Munster are ever going to be slugging it out in the bottom third.
But increasingly the moans of the English and French are being heard by sympathetic ears; plenty of people believe the league needs a shot in the arm.
A lively scrap for Heineken spots may just encourage that but don’t expect it to stop the big guns fielding ‘joke’ teams.