CHRIS KIRWAN SAYS: Ambition needed to get big nights back
THOMOND Park, inspiring yet deflating at the same time.
The reaction of the Newport Gwent Dragons squad to playing Munster’s premier venue last week spoke volumes.
To a man they were in awe of the surroundings, pledging that it had stoked their desire to return. It is a magnificent stadium and being there for the Dragons’ game was enough to ponder what it must be like on a winner-takes-all Heineken Cup night.
Sadly, the Dragons are some way off being involved in the premier European competition, let alone making waves in it.
They pushed Munster in Limerick and their performance was a vast improvement on their display against Cardiff Blues.
Yet there was still the impression that they were being patted on the head by the double European champions, who had the ability to go up a few more gears if required.
At the start of the season there was optimism that the region would push their rivals hard in the tussle for the three Heineken Cup qualification spots.
It’s certainly not all over yet but that hope has been dented by a combination of the Dragons’ failure to add to the five points earned on opening night against Zebre and the fine starts made by the Blues and Scarlets.
It seems daft given that they have travelled to Leinster and Munster, but the Dragons’ results have deflated their supporters.
They are already fearing another grim season and if things don’t go to plan tomorrow night against Edinburgh then the mood will be acerbic.
The Dragons have come to rely on a hardcore of support, the 4,500 to 5,000 that will head to their usual spots on a cold, wet night to watch Connacht, Treviso or Glasgow.
But they mustn’t be taken for granted and they want some sort of glory.
Not necessarily Heineken Cup quarter-finals or battles to earn home advantage in the Pro12 play-offs.
But they want to be proud of their team and to see them producing performances that will ensure no opposition thinks of them as ‘the fourth Welsh region’.
At times it is easy to ponder whether the board shares the ambition of those in the stands.
Admittedly it is easy to sit on the side telling others to put their hands in their pocket but it has been clear for some time that the Dragons need more power in their front five.
Supporters have seen big earners – Brew, Charteris, Willis, Castle – go out of the exit door and haven’t seen big names heading in.
The reasons for that are understandable, the money ‘saved’ has gone to members of the squad who have earned a pay rise. However, all the support can see is a stripped down squad.
There is no doubt that Dan Evans, Tom Prydie and Ian Nimmo have added to the team and look to be astute signings.
As I have said in this column before, the policy of polishing rough diamonds is necessary for the Dragons while the academy needs to produce a stream of better players.
The likes of Jack Dixon, Ieuan Jones, Hallam Amos, Elliot Dee and Ashton Hewitt must be followed by more talented teens.
But the failure to add as least one South African, Aussie, New Zealander or even a gnarled Argentinean rankles with the punters.
The Dragons budget is simple – more money in equals more money spent on the squad.
But without the latter the former won’t be happening and bums will be on sofas rather than plastic seats.
Build it and they will come. Trundle along and they will watch Coronation Street instead on a Friday night, leaving a sparse, frustrated and miserable crowd.