Ignoring the Dragons
March 30, 2010
Can Jason Tovey break into the Wales squad? © PA Photos
Rodney Parade is the only ground with links to the derbies of old left in Welsh regional rugby, and among the creaking stands and corrugated roofing the Dragons wrote another chapter in their history by scrapping to victory over the Ospreys last Friday.
The 28-20 scoreline was remarkable for a number of reasons. One, the visitors fielded a full international XV containing 11 Welsh Test players, one Scottish, one Irish and two All Blacks. Two, the Ospreys could not find room once again for Tom Prydie, Wales' newly-crowned youngest international, who was on duty with Wales Under-18s the following Sunday. And three, the Dragons fans again found their voices to castigate Welsh coach Warren Gatland.
Rather than being a chip on the shoulder of the Newport faithful, the lack of Dragons being recognised at Test level is becoming a cumbersome sack of logs. During the Six Nations Luke Charteris was the only player to feature from the region, with blindside Dan Lydiate, now out for the season with an injury, failing to make a matchday squad following his November debut.
After being tracked down in New Zealand by that champion of all things black and amber, The South Wales Argus, Gatland maintained that he had watched the Dragons a lot this season but could not shake off his doubts. "Some of the Dragons players are putting their hands up and [Jason] Tovey has been really good," he said. "But you have to ask are those players ready to face South Africa and New Zealand?"
It's an interesting question. Leaving aside Prydie, who unfortunately will be drawn into every selection debate from now on, Gatland has shown in the past that he is not afraid to dish out the odd baptism of fire. Leigh Halfpenny, a handful of games into his pro career, started against South Africa in 2008, and on tour against the Boks that year Jamie Roberts won his third cap in a position that he hadn't played since school, and Lydiate himself was among the back-row slaughtered by Wallabies David Pocock and George Smith last November.
Naysayers will point to the fact that two of those three players earn their crust down the road in Cardiff, but equally it must also be said that they filled in for injured regulars (Mark Jones and Lee Byrne) and took their chances. Perhaps the most damaging obstacle in the way of the Dragons' Test hopefuls was thrown up last season when their Heineken Cup play-off against Calvisano meant that Tovey, Charteris, Lydiate and No. 8 Lewis Evans were forced to withdraw from Wales' squad to tour North America.
Since then, Tovey has shifted, very successfully, from fullback to fly-half, 23-year-old wing Will Harries has caught the attention regularly and, as if the squad wasn't young enough, Toby Falatau, all of 18, has made a home for himself at No. 8. Coupled with nearly-men Ashley Smith and Aled Brew, the Dragons, and head coach Paul Turner, are building a case.
The impressive wing Richard Fussell has followed in the footsteps of lock Ian Gough in joining the Ospreys in recent months, having been extremely unfortunate not to make the international squad at the end of last season. Whether he is given the chance to shine in big games is difficult to predict given the fact that his new employers can usually call on two British & Irish Lions wings in Tommy Bowe and Shane Williams.
Wales will never have the player pool available to many countries, so to ignore developing talent is foolish, but to suggest that Gatland has not picked these players because they play for the Dragons is bordering on nonsensical. It is true that players from the Blues and Ospreys, having reached the knock-out stages of the Heineken Cup in the last three seasons and won the Anglo-Welsh Cup, are more visible and for that reason can be deemed as safer bets in terms of Test recognition. Until this season the Dragons have not represented a consistent threat in the league despite their promise and are yet to make any meaningful impact in Europe.
If the Dragons manage to nick a play-off spot in the Magners League this season then there may be more for Gatland to mull over prior to announcing his squad to face the Springboks. Their upward curve is the best way to influence the selectors and should they outperform their Welsh rivals in the league, then there will be a solid spine to their claims.
The fans may feel that Fussell and Tovey are ready to face the All Blacks in the summer but Gatland will be taking a trimmed-down squad in order to replicate conditions at the Rugby World Cup in 2011. The griping isn't likely to stop any time soon.
Huw Baines is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.