2017 proved an eventful year for supporters and stakeholders of the Welsh Professional Rugby Region, newly entitled as ‘Dragons Rugby’. With the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) recently installed as the new owners of both Rodney Parade and Dragons Rugby, what does the future of the Region hold?
Newport Gwent Dragons – Urgent Need for Change
Historically, the region had struggled to secure the financial backing to compete with the other three Welsh Regions. Let alone the financial powerhouses of English and French clubs. The Region had continued in its attempts to compete, with both an overstretched playing squad, and minimized operating budget.
This financial position not only limited the team’s ability to remain competitive on the field, but also meant operating without key staff positions filled. The legacy debts, both to investors and the WRU, meant that their very existence was under threat. The Region, led by CEO Stuart Davies, was therefore placed up for sale in April 2016. That was done with a hope of attracting much needed external investment.
“Let us hope somebody does come along. This white knight over the mountain with big pannier bags, let’s hope he arrives” – Martyn Hazell, Chairman.
With the stadium and grounds; Rodney Parade, and the Region’s legacy debt predominantly owned by Newport RFC (NRFC), this clearly was a complex scenario linking back to the Region’s inception. To unravel this it would be necessary to legally separate these entities – to provide NRFC and Dragons the clarity and independence they required to move forward.
Throughout this search for investors, many of the interested parties understandably required security for their own assurance purposes. Such offers were believed to have been predominately based around taking ownership of NRFC’s Rodney Parade stadium.
At this point in the process the WRU, led by CEO Martyn Phillips, offered assistance and a possibly more secure, long-term solution. He said at the time “We feel we have a responsibility to step in. This is for Gwent, the WRU have 73 clubs there.
“we feel this is the right thing to do for the county.” – Martyn Phillips, WRU.
The WRU’s offer was predicated on ‘ownership’ of Rodney Parade, however in this case the difference being that the transfer of assets would be to the Union.
In order to protect NRFC, it’s Chairman Tony Brown had made provisions in the NRFC constitution which required a minimum 75% ‘yes’ shareholder vote. This was set up to ensure that any such significant changes, such as sale of the club or its assets, would require a large majority vote.
Understandably, NRFC shareholders voiced concerns of the potential loss of their historic ground, and the lack of assurances over the financial future of their club. If approved, the offer left NRFC as tenants in Rodney Parade. It also saw their future ‘intrinsically linked to the Dragons.
“There is more comfort in the sale of the land to the union than to private investors because of the assurances they have given” – Stuart Davies, CEO Dragons rugby.
WRU Ownership – The Big Vote
The process leading up to the vote proved an emotional journey for supporters, players and staff alike. With both Dragons and WRU CEO’s Stuart Davies and Martyn Phillips spending considerable time engaging all parties, that was to ensure clarity around the facts and implications were understood.
With the vote held on the evening of May 9, the monumental decision by NRFC shareholders was made. The WRU offer accepted with a ‘yes’ vote of 81%. A sense of relief was immediate, from supporters, players and staff alike.
Although this decision was to some ‘unpalatable’ the alternatives presented proved far worse. The acceptance of the offer prevented one of Welsh rugby’s most famous clubs; and one of its four pro-Rugby Regions, from very real threat of liquidation.
Dragons Rugby – The Immediate Changes
The WRU took ownership of the Region on 01 Jul 17, with a change in name immediately implemented, and a subtle refresh in the team’s logo. ‘Newport Gwent Dragons’ had become ‘Dragons Rugby’.
“We know we need a new brand identity. To show the Dragons as the elite end of a pathway which encompasses 73 clubs in the region.”
This if for the mutual benefit of all rugby in the area. Both amateur and professional, and for men, women, boys and girls in equal measure,” was the statement from Martyn Phillips.
The WRU immediately started work on the Rodney Parade playing surface, a historically problematic area (see above image). The pitch was immediately dug up for much needed drainage improvements. The ground was prepared for the introduction of a ‘Desso style’ hybrid pitch.
Although the WRU made clear it wouldn’t invest in the Region’s playing budget, it deployed its resources and specialist support immediately. There was a clear intent to make the Region a self-sufficient and stable entity. Therefore, an attractive proposition for additional private third party investment.
A number of meetings were also quickly scheduled with established Region’s clubs, supporters and sponsors. These were to not only outline what the Dragons’ initial vision was, but establish just what the expectations were. This demonstrated an appetite to listen. And demonstrated how WRU would act on the recommendations and suggestions, of the Dragons’ community.
Changes at the Boardroom Level
Some of the most notable changes within the organisation were at the very top, where the majority of the Dragons’ and NRFC boards stood down. Head coach Kingsley Jones was replaced by ex Leinster and Ireland hooker Bernard Jackman.
Jackman’s promising coaching career, which started at junior levels in Ireland, has then taken him to Grenoble. Jackman had arrived in France as a skills and forwards coach, but made a huge impression, and was eventually promoted to the Head Coach position.
“He will be a huge asset to the region, he will create the right environment to allow a talented group to become even better players.”
“He is someone in whom the supporters will find they can put their trust, as he will work tirelessly in his pursuit of success,” said Warren Gatland.
With the experience Jackman has of both representing, and engaging within a Regional construct at both Connacht and Leinster, his impact at the Dragons has been immediate. Supporters and junior clubs were invited to training sessions, and local coaches invited to coaching seminars and open training.
In addition, his personal engagement with local clubs, community and supporters through social media has been well received.
With a new Dragons Rugby board due to be appointed by the WRU, this would provide further opportunity to foster and sustain a stable business model. Build an ambitious strategic direction, and critically, a shared vision. The makeup of this board would therefore prove crucial in terms of identifying and inviting further private investment, and continuing to develop the Region.
Upcoming Season 2017/18
The coming Celtic League season will be of interest to many, both with the addition of the Cheetahs and Southern Kings to the Guinness Pro14, plus the implementation of Jackman’s new playing and coaching style locally. With the only additions to the squad being Gavin Henson and Zane Kitchener, the young squad has been bolstered slightly with some much incoming experience.
Hungry Gavin Henson determined to impress at Dragons… and won't give up on Wales dream https://t.co/yk01TFqkQM
There is a case for genuine optimism, but this–and the desire for immediate short term results–would need to be contextualized. The Dragons’ squad is undoubtedly talented, and contains some very promising young Welsh players. It does however remain relatively thin, and ‘through the season’ it will be tested.
With the right tactical approach for the upcoming Dragons Rugby season, and luck with injuries to key players, there is potential that many of those old narrow margins of defeat could be turned around in 2017/18.
Dragons Rugby – Last Word on Rugby Conclusion
There is a tangible sense of positivity and optimism surrounding the Dragons, due to the stability now in place. The team, support staff and business had been understaffed and underfunded for long periods. Being provided the opportunity to see what the young team can deliver with increased support will be of interest to both Dragons Rugby, and Welsh rugby supporters.
The appointment of Bernard Jackman seems a shrewd, and already popular one with supporters. He has demonstrated his desire to establish a sense of family and inclusiveness within the Region. His appetite to improve the culture on and off the field, and establish the right environment for the players, is something Dragons supporters should be excited about. With the Dragons Rugby board soon to be appointed, it will hopefully continue building on the ground work already completed.
However, in closing, it is only fitting that whilst contemplating this potential bright future, there is sufficient reflection upon the past.
The Dragons, and their supporters, should respect the decision made by the NRFC shareholders. With their historic ‘yes’ vote for the WRU takeover on May 9, it was a big leap of faith. Without their approval of the WRU’s offer, and with that vote; the selling their historic stadium, this optimism regarding the future of the Region would not have been possible.
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