FEW expect Newport Gwent Dragons to come back from this weekend’s trip to Limerick with anything to show for their efforts – and one wonders whether those in the camp even think they can.
They haven’t won against Munster in the south of Ireland since the first season of regional rugby and head into Saturday’s clash at Thomond Park on the back of one of the most demoralising
performances since their inception.
The Dragons were awful in defeat to Cardiff Blues last Saturday. Referee Neil Hennessy was frustratingly inconsistent at the breakdown but the official could not be blamed for the woeful skills
that were on display from both regions.
Conversely, Munster looked pretty impressive in a humdinger against Ulster the night before, playing with width and with ex-Blue Casey Laulala in magnificent form.
Those two performances combined with past meetings between the sides provide the reason why the odds will be long on the Dragons enjoying their evening in Limerick.
But they cannot afford to listen to the bookies or things will turn very ugly in Limerick.
Blind faith is one thing, but having belief is another and the apparent lack of it is a real problem for the Dragons.
It is obvious they are not the most talented bunch in Europe; they don’t have the ability to go toe-to-toe with Leinster’s best, Toulouse, Toulon or Harlequins.
And they aren’t going to be joined by Dan Carter, Richie McCaw or Pierre Spies over the coming months, even if they are eyeing an overseas international recruit.
This is what they have got to work with and they need to make the most of it – and this squad could and should be sitting in third in the RaboDirect Pro12 table with 11 points to their name.
First they froze when a pair of bonus points were within reach against Leinster’s second string; a moment in the closing stages was evidence.
A penalty was won and Dan Evans pinged his kick to touch five metres from the line.
But then they were struck by the self-doubt that seemed to hamper them from the moment that their third try had been scored.
For some reason they dithered and went into a huddle to decide the throw – something they had not done all game.
That indecision saw them go away from their front-of-the-lineout banker and then Hugh Gustafson overshot lock Ian Nimmo. Chance gone.
At times the Dragons appear to lack conviction on their travels and players fail to take opportunities.
They produced some great stuff in Dublin when playing catch-up and when there was no pressure.
But they undid all of that hard work when they just needed to take that next step – wrong options were taken, runners were isolated in the Leinster 22, silly errors crept in.
It was the same last season when they should have been leaving grounds with bonus points rather than regrets.
But the frustration that they felt in the changing room at the Royal Dublin Society was nothing compared to the anguish that they had at Rodney Parade last week.
They were up against a very poor Cardiff Blues side. Man of the match Rhys Patchell didn’t win the award because he produced a performance to suggest he will wear the region’s number 10 jersey for
seasons to come, he won it because he wasn’t as lousy as everyone else.
This was a game that was there for the taking yet the Dragons seemed to once again lack the belief to grab hold of it, dictate the pace and show that they are better than their nearest rivals.
Maybe it’s because the region has traditionally been ranked fourth. Maybe it’s because they have got used to not having the facilities, squad size or budgets of their rivals.
The cliche “it’s the hope that kills you” is a horrendous one, but it rings true.
This season is a golden chance for the Dragons to finish above at least one of their Welsh rivals, who are as ordinary as they have been for many a season.
That objective took a big hit with defeat to the Blues last week but it wasn’t a terminal blow.
Sneaking the odd point here and there away from home would help undo some of the damage if combined with an ugly win at Glasgow or Connacht.
Avoiding a drubbing is a must in Limerick but that cannot be the Dragons’ aim.
They have not won in Ireland since 2008. They probably won’t this weekend but the Dragons must believe they can at least get a bonus point, otherwise it will be a long evening.
If they don’t head onto the Thomond Park turf with conviction then they are never going to prove their doubters wrong.
This is not the most talented bunch of players the region has ever seen but they are better than they have shown in the past two weeks and they can improve dramatically.
But if they don’t believe in themselves then how can they expect anyone else to?