Dean Ryan is facing one of the most difficult challenges of his coaching career sending out a Dragons team that has never played together to face some of the World’s top players in their European Challenge Cup quarter final with Bristol at Ashton Gate.
Facing down Fijian superstar Semi Radradra, New Zealand full back Charlie Piutau and a host of England internationals like Kyle Sinckler and Nathan Hughes was always going to be tough, but throw into the equation nearly three weeks without a game for the Dragons and the task becomes even more daunting.
Dragons put out a team including young talent and lost 41-20 to Scarlets on August 29 – the day an under strength Bristol outfit was trounced 40-7 by Sale. Since that date, the clubs have been following very different paths to their European quarter-final with Dragons working hard to replicate game situations in training while Bristol have thumped Worcester 36-13 and Northampton 47-10 and will add a third Gallagher Premiership outing to the mix when they take on in-form Wasps on Sunday in what is expected to be a run out for the team that will face the Welsh side.
Playing matches comes with a risk not only in terms of potential injury but also disciplinary setbacks and Bristol will be without captain Siale Piutau against the Dragons after he failed in his appeal against a three game ban after being sent off against Worcester.
While the absence of the Bristol captain is of some solace, Ryan’s only concern is ensuring his squad – which will include recent arrivals Jonah Holmes, Jamie Roberts and Nick Tompkins – arrives at Ashton Gate mentally and physically ready to cause an upset despite never having played together. Roberts could not be considered for the final two Pro14 games because he was self-isolating after testing positive for COVID-19.
Ryan, the Dragons director of rugby, refuses to be cowed by the enormity of the task and believes his players and coaching staff will learn a lot about themselves in this match which is a precursor to their Heineken Champions Cup campaign next season. He said: “It is unique because I haver gone into a European quarter-final just three games into the season! This match has great drama and narrative; they are fast becoming one of the main sides in the Gallagher Premiership with some of the World’s best players.
“We cannot emphasise how excited we are about the challenge and we are not stressing about it. We are one of the lowest budgets in the Pro14 and they are one of the biggest in the Premiership and that is great narrative in itself.
“We only ever had two games after the restart that never really had anything on them (against Ospreys and Scarlets). We looked at being three weeks away from a quarter-final and the merits of going with a XV against Ospreys and Scarlets that flowed into Bristol and there were minimal benefits. The challenge has been how to get the XV we want to face Bristol ready and we have done as much as we can to replicate that intensity in-house.
“We train pretty physically anyway and this is a pretty unique situation because we are probably getting 12 days preparation for the game and Bristol are getting four but they have continuity of performing. We are working to get continuity in a XV that people will not have seen yet because we didn’t think it was in the long term interests of the club.
“This team will not have played together and we have the gamble of some of our new quality players not having played. If we had not taken the selection decisions then a significant number of youngsters at the club will not have played until January. In the Pro14 there is no Celtic Cup and so we have to get the balance of getting that right while also putting our best XV on the pitch to face Bristol. We don’t have the resources that Bristol have got.”
With Bristol playing three matches while the Dragons are only training has, at least, given Ryan and his coaches more video to analyse about the strengths and weaknesses of Pat Lam’s high profile squad although constant selection changes to deal with mid-week matches does muddy the water. “ The Premiership at the moment is a series of mis-matches:” said the former Gloucester and Worcester director of rugby. “You only occasionally see a firsts v firsts and we have seen games where they have had an easy stroll and also a tougher time against Exeter.
“I have had some tough conversations because some selections have been done on a bit of reputation because it is a one-off game. It is not done on eight weeks of form with everyone getting a chance. This is pretty early in our journey but we won’t be going into the match undercooked. We are excited to pitch ourselves against Bristol and of course it will be difficult but there are so many players who haven’t faced this kind of challenge and there are times when you feel paternal and think “ that will be tough for them”. But, you cannot hide them from the excitement and if we manage to pull it off then it will be a great story.”