AT the end of last season Argus readers were invited to send in questions for the Dragons coaching staff. Head coach Darren Edwards, assistant coach Rob Appleyard and director of rugby Robert Beale met rugby writer Chris Kirwan to provide the answers.
Q: Did we leave our recruitment too late? I worry that other teams had their pick and we got the leftovers? (Andrew Jenkins)
RB: This has been an unusual year for recruitment. Normally it would all be done in January or by February but because of the uncertainty in Welsh rugby all the regions have been in the same boat.
We (the regions) have not been in a position to make a decision on budgets or what direction each of the businesses is going in, and to be honest that is still ongoing.
I think we will continue in the way that we have but it has been an unusual year.
It hasn’t made my life easy but, with the exception of Charteris and Brew, we have retained every player that we wanted to retain.
We made some tough decisions on some players while other decisions to release were obvious. We made a decision to run with a 38-man squad, cutting from 57. We will probably end up at 42 but we were initially looking at a core of 38 players that we can register for Europe.
We weren’t looking for that much.
We were looking for a second row and offers were made for Lou Reed (who has joined Cardiff Blues), Dom Day (Bath) and Damien Welch (Exeter). We made offers for those locks and they decided to go elsewhere.
RA: We are realists and there is only a certain amount of money that a player is worth and when they start pushing up there is point where you have to say no.
You have to balance it all up and if you overextend in recruiting in one position then you are in trouble elsewhere.
We also recognise the importance of giving players opportunities rather than always bringing in others ahead of them. The likes of Jevon Groves, Sam Parry, they need their chances.
RB: We also made an offer for Deacon Manu, which was accepted but he backtracked. I understand why because of family reasons. But we made serious offers for what we considered to be experienced players.
That leads on to a point made by one of our readers Andrew James, who feels that seasoned performers are needed to help the youngsters progress and also to win games.
DE: Rugby in Wales has changed massively in recent years and we are not going to be buying ready-made players at the top of their game.
We have got to be very careful in who we recruit and we put a lot of work into that.
As coaches we are confident that the players that we bring in have room to grow and that we can help them improve, hopefully into top class players.
RB: When I first came into this job there was a massive criticism that the region was wasting money on overseas players. There was a conscious decision to move those highly-paid players on.
Some of them provided value for money, others didn’t. As a business, if you get it wrong at that level you are in trouble. If you get it wrong at the other end, the hit isn’t as bad.
But there is a huge effort from Darren and all of the other coaching staff in terms of firstly identifying the talent and secondly trying to help them develop, fulfil their potential and put in performances that our supporters enjoy.
RA: There is a sprinkling of experienced players throughout the squad in Steve Jones, Rob Sidoli, Adam Jones, Lewis Evans, Andrew Coombs is a seasoned back row forward.
That’s just in the forwards. In the backs there are experienced players like Tonderai Chavhanga and Ashley Smith.
But also we exposed a lot of young players to regional rugby last season and they will be better for that.
RB: Exactly, the likes of Lewis Robling have got a season under their belt through design. The moment we knew what was happening with (Cardiff Blues-bound) Jason Tovey the coaching team made a conscious decision to go with Lewis and Steffan Jones, who unfortunately got injured.
That was not for cynical reasons towards Jason, it was always with the next season in mind.
And I’m not sure the likes of Lewis can be considered young in rugby these days – players are representing Wales at his age, it’s just they need experience of regional rugby.
DE: Lewis’ athletic and technical ability on the training field is of a great standard. But there’s that exposure on the pitch. You need to get these young players out there and we have done that.
We also need everybody to have an opportunity to grasp a starting shirt; there is no pecking order.
Young players can thrive in a competitive environment where they know they have the chance of earning the start, and with the players that Rob Appleyard mentioned I feel we have the experience in key positions that can help them along the way.
Q: How do you think our new signings did last season? I was disappointed with Andy Tuilagi and Joe Bedford (Nathan Dark)
DE: The recruitment of Joe was not purely with what he does on the field in mind.
Joe is a good, solid player. I brought him in because he had an experienced scrum-half above him (Wayne Evans) and an inexperienced one below (Jon Evans).
I felt, and feel, that it’s a good fit and Joe is great around our training environment. He runs our discipline and is great with our younger players.
Regarding Andy, he was not in good physical shape when he arrived and had a poor season, there is no hiding from that.
He didn’t hit the standards that he should have last season but there is plenty of evidence out there about what he can do in the field. Andy has the ability in him and we’ve got to get that out of him.
He is back in for pre-season but forget all the conditioning work that’s been put in – he needs to perform on the field and if he doesn’t produce the form that we know he is capable of then he won’t have a job here next season, simple as that.
Andy made plenty of line breaks last season even though he was off-form. He has something that none of our other players possess but he needs to perform consistently.
He is not putting in the shots for us that he has for other teams – like his tackle against James Hook for the Pacific Islands against Wales – it’s in him but he needs to do it for the Dragons now.
Q: What will it take to sign up some Cross Keys players? People like Gerwyn Price have been in great form and look ready to step up. (Chris Lanigan) Q: Are we looking to recruit many players from clubs in our region? I don’t necessarily mean 19 to 20-year-old but those that have performed consistently over a few seasons but have never had the opportunity to train full-time to gain the level of conditioning that they perhaps lack. (Nathan Dark)
RA: Having coached in the Premiership I am well aware of the talent out there and Darren has always asked me to keep a close eye on how our professionals are doing and also anyone else with potential.
I watched so many games last season and you start to see standout players like Gerwyn Price at Cross Keys, Newport’s Hywel Stoddart, Pontypool’s Dan Robinson and Ross Wardle at Bedwas.
What we decided to do was have an open policy for them, allow them to train with us over the summer and almost go on trial.
There’s not always the guarantee that a player who is superb in the Premiership will be able to make the step up required of professionals in training let alone games. Some of their bodies can’t take it while some can’t combine being a professional with their lifestyle outside of rugby.
This is a five-week trial to see how they go and then we will assess them on a weekly basis to see if they are shoulder to shoulder with professional players and improving all the time.
Potentially there are contracts there for these guys and we have been impressed with what we have seen so far.
RB: I would stress that this is not a new phenomenon and that the Premiership has always been a vital pathway for us.
We look closely at players and there are plenty of examples of them getting a chance here – Lloyd Burns, Jevon Groves, Andrew Coombs and Tom Riley to name but a few.
Q: Surely we have plenty of room in our budget after the exit of senior players? (Andrew Jenkins)
DE: I understand why our supporters think there is a lot of money left in the pot for high-profile players after seeing the likes of Luke Charteris, Aled Brew and Tom Willis go.
But our younger players also need more and after being given a budget we need to work out the best way of putting together a squad.
RB: Young players have financial expectations and they increase when they start hitting the levels of performance that the coaches have asked for, they start knocking on my door.
You have to reward players for producing, for example Nathan Buck played 27 times last season after starting down the pecking order.
The salary cap (agreed by the regions) is £3.5million and we will be £7/800,000 under that. Some supporters may criticise that but that is our business plan.
We’d be doing cartwheels in the rugby department if we were given £3.5million but the simple fact is that we have to live within our means.
Q: Martyn Thomas and Jason Tovey are two of the most exciting backs that I have seen at the Dragons. How can players of this calibre be allowed to languish and not progress? Surely if they are good enough to attract the interest of Gloucester and Cardiff Blues they should have been essential to the progress of the Dragons? (Allen Lloyd)
RB: We entered contract negotiations with both players but agreement couldn’t be reached and they have ended up elsewhere. As Rob (Appleyard) said earlier, as a business we have valuations of what every player is worth and how far we will go in negotiations.
At the end of the day, perhaps we needed a change and they needed a change and we wish them all the best.
DE: I enjoyed working with them but you also have to look at who we have brought in and we have recruited two international full-backs in Tom Prydie and Dan Evans who I am sure the fans will enjoy watching play.
Q: What are your aims and hopes for the coming season?
DE: We need a significant step up in performance as a team and as individuals within that team. I have no doubt that this squad have ambition, it is now about realising that ambition on the field.
We need to make an impact on the league, as that will dictate what European competition we play in.
Our away form is a huge goal for myself, as we need to understand the importance of away league points. A league table is judged over a course of a season, so a league point in September could be the difference in qualifying for Heineken Cup in May.
I now have a management team with me that have clear goals and ambitions for us to take a step forward as a region.
It was extremely difficult last season for a variety of reasons. We have conducted an extensive review of our environment that we work in and the performance elements of our game plan to make sure we show signs of improvement next season.
There has been a significant step change here at the Dragons both on and off the field to make sure we are all working towards common goals.
Q: What improvements are you hoping to see?
DE: It will always be about the game on the weekend, so our performance as a team and results will be very important to us.
I would like to see the Dragons as a region and the individual players in our team make an impact on Welsh rugby.
I am hoping to see a working partnership develop with our regional teams that are part of the pathway the player will go through into the professional game.
This mindset is important that we identify, develop and support players through that pathway into regional rugby.
Growing your own talent and supporting and enjoying their performances on the professional stage should be what it’s all about.