DEAN Ryan has made it clear since heading through the door at Rodney Parade that he’s not particularly bothered by the Dragons’ past but Saturday presents a huge chance to show that they have made strides.

Knockout European rugby returns to Newport this weekend with the visit of Northampton in the last 16 of the Challenge Cup.

It’s a mouth-watering encounter against English opposition that would have had the famous old ground rocking as Ryan’s men attempt to cause an upset.

They are underdogs, but only just and will fancy their chances of stunning a Saints side that sit fifth in the English Premiership and are fresh from a nine-try destruction of Worcester.

After a hugely encouraging month, the very least we expect of the Dragons is that they are competitive against a club that hammered them twice in 2018.

Being doubled by the Saints in the Challenge Cup group stages turned out to be the end of the Bernard Jackman era.

The Dragons were dejected after being smashed by Northampton three years ago

The Dragons were dejected after being smashed by Northampton three years ago

The 35-21 home defeat was a lot worse than the scoreline suggests – the Dragons were a shambles in the first half – and then they were given a 48-14 drubbing at Franklin’s Gardens.

That was Jackman's last game at the helm with Ceri Jones given the job until the end of the campaign, then Dean Ryan was appointed.

His first season provided encouragement but there was the fear at the start of 2021 that it was back to the same old, same old.

Eight defeats on the bounce, including poor derby displays and a shocker at Zebre, meant they were in danger of propping up Conference A of the Guinness PRO14.

Yet the mood has changed since a stirring second half in Bridgend; the Dragons beat the Ospreys then impressed at Principality Stadium with an abrasive display against Ulster before a Scottish double against Glasgow and Edinburgh.

They have played with physicality, defended with aggression and mixed some dashing rugby with getting the basics right in the tight.

The potent back three of Jordan Williams, Ashton Hewitt and Jonah Holmes has been able to thrive thanks to the honest graft of the tight five.

Jonah Holmes crosses for the Dragons against Edinburgh

Jonah Holmes crosses for the Dragons against Edinburgh

They certainly haven’t been perfect but the signs are promising ahead of what will be a litmus test.

The Dragons were thrashed by Bristol in the quarter-finals of the Challenge Cup in September but this is a far more winnable clash on home soil.

Ryan will no doubt talk about the knockout clash being good for his young players when doing his media duties on Thursday but it’s likely that there will be just three individuals who can be classed as novices in the 23 (lock Ben Carter, centre Aneurin Owen and flanker Ben Fry).

The Dragons will include four members of the squad that won the Six Nations – Nick Tompkins, Elliot Dee, Leon Brown, Aaron Wainwright.

They could name six Wales internationals – Jamie Roberts, Ross Moriarty, Richard Hibbard, Rhodri Williams, Sam Davies and Holmes – plus Hewitt and Harri Keddie are knocking loudly at the door. Gonzalo Bertranou has beaten the All Blacks with Argentina.

They will boast vast experience in the form of Brok Harris, Lloyd Fairbrother, Greg Bateman, Matthew Screech, Joe Davies and Jordan Williams.

Ryan was frustrated that a coronavirus outbreak deprived his players of a Champions Cup experience in December but they are going into the knockout stages of the second tier pretty much fully-loaded.

This is an opportunity to earn some respect against a club that brushed them aside with ease just over three years ago, scoring 13 tries in two games.

This is a squad that should ensure there is no repeat. This is a squad with a realistic shot at earning a home quarter-final against Ulster or Harlequins.