As first seasons go, they don’t get much tougher than Bernard Jackman’s opening campaign as head coach of the Dragons.
When Jackman took over at the Welsh region ahead of the 2017/18 campaign, his mission was a clear one; to make the Dragons the top club in Wales and remove their long-lasting tag as the country’s whipping boys.
Everything needed to change – the culture, medical facilities, strength & conditioning – with the WRU now behind the scenes at Rodney Parade, the club are finally getting to a level where they are obtaining resources similar to that of the other clubs in Wales.
However, with any club, the most important thing is the players you have at your disposal and Jackman made this point clearly when he was speaking at the PRO14 launch in Glasgow on Tuesday.
The Dragons suffered a chronic injury crisis last year which saw up to 26 players out of action during one stage of the season. This is going to affect any team but it seriously impacted the Welsh side when you consider they simply do not have the same resources as the clubs they are competing against.
Experience is a huge factor, too. Last season, compared to the Ospreys, Scarlets and Cardiff Blues, the Rodney Parade outfit were bottom of the list when it came to players’ exposure to the highest level.
“If you use international caps as a barometer of quality, we had 99 international caps on the first of July last season, this season we have 268,” Jackman said.
“The other Welsh regions have around 500, Ospreys have 600 but the minimum is 500 across the other three. So we were a long way behind on 99, a fifth of the caps.”
Due to a heavy recruitment period which will see the likes of Ross Moriarty line out at Rodney Parade for the upcoming season, Jackman has addressed the experience issue but their injury problems of last season only truly come into clear view when the 42-year-old recalls a difficult situation when the squad travelled to South Africa to take on the Southern Kings last March.
“Cory [Hill] and Ollie [Griffiths] came back from the Six Nations and we went to Italy for a week and it was just such a young group. In fairness, we acquitted ourselves really well, we got two losing bonus points.
“But I remember last year we went to South Africa and one of our players couldn’t travel with us because he didn’t have a letter from his Mum, he was only 17. That doesn’t happen to other coaches but we kept our heads and we stuck together. The players deserve a lot of credit for that, especially the experienced guys like Cory when they started to mentor those young kids.”
Jackman is looking forward to a season where he will have more experienced players at his disposal; not just those who he has recruited but also guys like Aaron Wainwright, Cory Hill, Elliot Dee and Hallam Amos who all got experience with Wales last season either in the Six Nations or in the summer tour.
“We have ideas coming from players who have been at the highest level. Whether that’s someone like Richard Hibbard or Ross Moriarty who have played for the Lions or whether it’s the lads like Rhodri Williams or Jordan Williams who were in Scarlets, went to Bristol and have come back with their philosophy and ideas.
“Then you have the likes of Aaron Wainwright, Cory [Hill], Elliot [Dee], Hallam Amos who were on the Welsh tour, who were getting access to Shaun Edwards, Gats [Warren Gatland] and Rob Howley. So we’re getting a lot of different experiences, so I think the mindset is, ‘we have enough raw materials now to be way better’, so let’s go and do it.”
The Tullow native is looking forward to having a much more settled squad for the upcoming campaign. Although he acknowledges the positives in giving experience to underage and Academy players last season, Jackman doesn’t want to see that situation arise again.
“We played 64 players in the Guinness PRO14 last year, ideally we would play 30 this year, have a really tight squad of elite players who get used to playing with each other, look after them, keep them fit and healthy, build combinations, build cohesion and have a settled team.
“Once we have that, with the quality we have, within that from internally and externally in terms of recruits, we have a chance of putting together a really nice team. So that’s exciting.”
In terms of targets, Jackman insisted that those shall remain within the group but he did reveal where he wants to see the club progress.
“We’ve set targets internally which we won’t disclose but for me, we’re playing Clermont in the Challenge Cup this year. Clermont coming to Rodney Parade is going to be brilliant for the people of our region to come and see a European game on a Friday night against a team like Clermont.
“But for us, we want to be doing that in the Champions Cup, we to be the team or the group that have brought the Dragons to Champions Cup rugby – the sooner we get there, the better.”
With only two wins in the PRO14 last season, an improved record is a must for the 2018/19 campaign. No one knows this more than the former Leinster hooker who concludes that this season, they have “a puncher’s chance.”
“Yeah, for sure, 14 of us as head coaches are all under pressure to get results. I think you put pressure on yourself. It’s pretty hard every Saturday, going home and having lost. We’re all in this to win.
“Externally, I don’t think that puts any more pressure on me than the pressure I put on myself to try to create a winning team. For sure there’s pressure and that’s a good thing to be honest. I think now we have a puncher’s chance whereas last year we were going into a fight with two hands behind our back.”
The Dragons get their PRO14 campaign underway when they host Benetton Rugby on Saturday 1 September.