Dragons RFC Head Coach Dai Flanagan has been handed some welcome headaches as he looks towards the BKT United Rugby Championship festive derbies.
During an extended three week stay in South Africa, he gave game-time to a large group of players and is delighted by the way they all put their hands up.
He now faces some tricky selection decisions, first for Saturday’s EPCR Challenge Cup tie at home to Pau and then the back-to-back BKT URC games against Welsh rivals Cardiff and the Scarlets over the holiday period.
Dragons returned from South Africa with three Challenge Cup points thanks to a highly creditable 31-31 draw with the Emirates Lions in Johannesburg, having been competitive in BKT URC defeats to the Emirates Lions (33-25) and the DHL Stormers (34-26), picking up a four-try bonus point in the latter fixture in Gqeberha.
They touched down 11 times in all during the three matches, showing their attacking game is in increasingly good order, while there is now real depth developing.
“Going out there, I said to the group I was going to rotate the squad and I did that. They have all put their hands up,” said Flanagan.
“We have got some big derby games coming up in the BKT URC and I wanted headaches. They have certainly given me headaches. We have got some boys to join the group as well, like Taine Basham, Gonzalo Bertranou, George Nott and Ollie Griffiths. You have got some outstanding players there who aren’t too far away.
“There’s real competition for places. I will rotate a bit more again next weekend against Pau and then everyone will be clear and obvious come the derbies we are at our best. But I believe we are at our best every week because the squad is so good and they challenge each other so well day to day, week to week. Whoever takes the field we trust every one.”
Reflecting on the tour of the Rainbow Nation, Flanagan said: “We are the first team in the BKT URC to stay out in South Africa for three continuous weeks and that’s tough. It’s a tough place to tour, you are up against big, strong men.
“Physically, nothing prepares you for the first time you come to South Africa and you experience the size and strength of people, but we were matching that by the end of the trip.
“We had three really enjoyable weeks out there and our performances got better and better. There are friendships made on tours like that for life. They will be out in 20 years time somewhere, see each other and remember something from it.
“The boys had a great time. We have a group of tight friends.”
Dragons lead the Emirates Lions 24-17 at half-time on the weekend, thanks to touchdowns from Jordan Williams, Sam Davies and Rhodri Williams, only to then fall behind after the break before Jack Dixon crossed to claim the four-try bonus and level the scores.
Both teams had chances to win it at the death, but fly-half Davies was wide with a drop goal and Jordan Hendrikse followed suit with a long-range penalty, so it ended honours even.
“It’s definitely three points gained,” said Flanagan. “Our target was to match the Lions physically and we made sure we threw the first punches in scrum, lineout, carry, tackle.
“The game could have gone away from us just after half-time with two quick tries, but I trust this group. We played smart and put ourselves back in it and a few minutes from time we were nearly there.
“It’s three points on the road and they could do us well as the competition evolves. We worked hard for those points.”
Now it’s back to a Welsh winter which will be some contrast to South African summer-time.
“It will be a bit different going from training in 28 degrees in Cape Town to doing it in minus four in Ystrad Mynach, but there’s nothing like home,” said Flanagan.
“We can’t wait to get back to playing in front of our fans. It’s important we back it up at home now. Pau are a typical French team, they are big, they are strong, so we know what’s coming.”
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We had three really enjoyable weeks out there and our performances got better and better. There are friendships made on tours like that for life. They will be out in 20 years time somewhere, see each other and remember something from it..