DEFENCE coach Simon Cross is relishing the chance to devote himself totally to the Dragons, declaring there is plenty of improvement to come after an encouragingly tenacious first season.

The Rodney Parade region are back in training ahead of the planned August 22 return to action in the Guinness PRO14.

Contact sessions haven’t yet taken place but Cross has been able to take the first steps as full-time defence coach, building on his efforts over the past year in Ystrad Mynach.

The 39-year-old former Edinburgh captain was brought in by director of rugby Dean Ryan last pre-season and continued the role on a part-time basis, combining duties with his job as head of rugby at Royal Grammar School Worcester.

The Dragons displayed a more dogged edge in the first season under Ryan – which helped them edge tight games against Worcester, the Scarlets, Ospreys and Cheetahs and come within seconds of nilling Glasgow – and the boss moved to ensure Cross joined his management team permanently.

South Wales Argus: WATCHING: Dragons coaches Luke Narraway and Simon CrossWATCHING: Dragons coaches Luke Narraway and Simon Cross

“Being part-time was great last season in the lead up to now being full-time, because we have got the principles in place,” said Cross.

“The bit that I missed was the individual, personal touches. I was really only able to come in and do the team sessions with a little bit of individual feedback by phone or with video clips.

“Now I will be in full-time and have a lot more energy and time for the boys, so that I can try to help get more out of them as people. I’m looking forward to that.”

A number of Dragons players are able to reflect on strong 2019/20 campaigns yet it isn’t Taine Basham, Rhodri Williams, Leon Brown or Adam Warren that wins Cross’ gold star.

“The most amazing person last year was my wife, because I was up at 5am to get to Ystrad Mynach, then I had to get in the car at midday to get to the school for 1.45pm to run sessions until 6pm and would then drive to the club team (Luctonians) that I was coaching and I’d get home at 10.30pm,” said the Worcestershire-based coach.

“Tuesdays and Thursdays were pretty full on and Sara was amazing with her understanding and the reasons behind it. I am looking forward to a normal day now!”

‘Normal’ is relative, one imagines the love for defence will ensure the days are still long but spent in one destination.

For Cross there is excitement that he has barely scratched the surface with the Dragons squad, from up-and-comers to established Test stars.

South Wales Argus:

“Aaron Wainwright still doesn’t even know how good he can be while we haven’t really started with where we can get Taine Basham,” said the coach with great enthusiasm.

“Look at his mistakes at the start of the year compared to what he was doing at Christmas, he just got better and better. That was only with tiny little bits of information that you would give him and he would pick them up and go.

“Richard Hibbard and Aaron Jarvis, two of the elder statesmen, are constantly asking how they can get better.

“There is Joe Davies, who nobody ever talks about. I don’t think that I have seen a second row hit people that hard.

“I’ve never worked with a 13 as talented and consistent in defence as Adam Warren. Matthew Screech, Harrison Keddie, Ollie Griffiths, the list goes on.

“I am so excited about working with this group and we’ve just got to keep driving and pushing to help make them better.

“There are no egos here, just down to earth people who like to graft. It’s a very easy and rewarding group to coach in way that I haven’t experienced before en masse.”

Cross, who retired at the age of 29 because of knee injuries, was a Scotland sevens international but coaching was always going to be about getting the ball back rather than dazzling in possession of it.

He said: “Defence was all that I was good at! I think I’ve got two records at Edinburgh, the most amount of games played without scoring a try and the most tackles ever made in a game!

“I think my life was destined to steer towards defence and to be fair it was an area that I always enjoyed.”

South Wales Argus:

Yet the former flanker doesn’t just stay quiet when Ryan’s other assistants are discussing their specialities.

“What I love about what Dean is building is that we don’t work in silos in the coaching group, everybody has an opinion on things,” said Cross.

“We all work together – the kicking is linked to how we defend but also how we want to counter-attack.

“We’ve got certain ways of attacking in certain areas of the field that would have some defence coaches jumping up and down, saying ‘what the hell are you doing here? Just kick it’.

“Actually, running from deep is the best place to attack because there can be people in the back field and more space to play with.

“I’ve just got to adapt my defensive scenarios in training to simulate that, so we’ve got to practice defending from turnovers and practice defending in areas close to our try line because we might make a mistake.

“That’s the best bit about a coaching team, when everybody is on the same page and you aren’t working in silos.

“You might be responsible for a certain area but you’ve also got to be responsible for having an opinion on someone else’s.”

Only Cardiff Blues are above the Dragons in the 2019/20 turnover chart and Cross will continue to encourage the squad to tackle low and get over the ball, as long as they listen to the ref.

But while the rest of us are obsessed by figures, the defence coach won’t go straight to the tackle charts, using the example of Warren when defending the 13 channel.

South Wales Argus:

“It’s very obvious when you make a mistake but it’s not always obvious when you have done something good, because that often means you probably haven’t made a tackle,” said Cross, who predictably cites the two losses to Zebre and Benetton as low points from his time in Newport.

“That’s why I’m not obsessed by stats and how many tackles a player has or hasn’t made.

“I know that as a back row forward in 2000 against Munster you could end up making 30 tackles in a game because they would keep going the same way but against Connacht you might end up making three. That doesn’t mean that you have had a good game in one but not the other, you are just doing your job.

“There has been a big sea change in the players working to a plan and as a coach it is important to give the lads the confidence that it’s not about stats, it’s about knowing your job and being effective at it.”