Jonathan Davies: Dragons breathe fresh fire into the ancient rivalry

Once the Dragons discovered they could cope with Leicester's big names their confidence zoomed
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The Independent Online

It was considerably wet and windy at Rodney Parade on Friday night and Leicester Tigers, pride of the Guinness Premiership, can have no complaints about their 24-15 defeat by a lively and organised Newport-Gwent Dragons side.

The pleasure of the victory was accompanied by a great sigh of relief. Ever since the Anglo-Welsh Powergen Cup was announced there have been fears that the four Welsh regions would find it heavy going against neighbours used to the higher intensity of the Premiership.

It is too early to come to conclusions, but the competition could not have asked for a better first-night send-off. Leicester paid the tournament the compliment of playing a full-strength team, but they simply made too many handling errors against opponents who counter-attacked aggressively.

The result, coupled with the news that Cardiff Blues have signed the great All Black winger Jonah Lomu on a seven-month contract, has given the Welsh regions a boost just at a time when they needed it.

Lomu's arrival will increase interest in all the competitions in which the Blues are involved. It's not a case of a former star winding down his career - Lomu has made a full recovery from his kidney transplant and a shoulder operation, and is coming here to prove he is worthy of recapturing his All Blacks place in time for the 2007 World Cup. He sounds up for it and, if he is fit, Cardiff will have gained a ball-carrying winger who can do damage to any side.

Lomu does not start playing until November, and by then I hope that this weekend will have pumped new life into a season that did not get off to a great start. Where the Welsh regions will benefit most from playing the English clubs is that it will give them experience of a higher standard of rugby than the Celtic League, so that when they come to the Heineken Cup it won't be such a big step-up in class.

Normally, they tend to do badly in the early Heineken ties because of that gap, but they should now be better prepared this season. Before Friday's game, I felt Leicester were the clear favourites. They were unbeaten and more used to this level of intensity. The conditions suited their forward strength, and I thought it would be an ideal opportunity for their stand-off, Andy Goode, to dominate.

As it turned out I was disappointed in them. Their basic skills were lacking and they could not keep any momentum going.

When English clubs used to visit Wales regularly it did not have to be wet and windy for them to struggle. There was something about the Welsh style, and it apparently still counts against them. Of course, the main reason that Leicester found it difficult to get going was that the Dragons played so very, very well, and this game was undoubtedly the high spot of their short life and a credit to their new coach, Paul Turner.

I always feel that if the Welsh forwards can compete against their English counterparts they have a chance, because they are becoming more streetwise and their skill behind can usually be trusted.

English clubs are more direct. The Premiership is power-based, and if you turn the ball over you won't see it for a while.

Leicester might have been unaccustomed to the way the Dragons contested the rucks and mauls. My impression is that in the Premiership, teams are more inclined to lay off the rucks and organise their defences. But the Welsh try to slow it down; as, indeed, do Leicester and Wasps, who are by far the best English sides at contesting the ball.

Once the Dragons discovered they could cope with the big names in the Tigers' pack their confidence zoomed. They took their points eagerly when they were on offer. Their outside-half, Craig Warlow, controlled the match and contributed 19 points, and there were excellent performances from Kevin Morgan at full-back and the returning Lion Michael Owen at No 8.

We saw glimpses of Leicester's might when Julian White began a pounding move that led to a try, and the winger Alesana Tuilagi just failed to touch down inside the dead-ball line, but the Dragons always had the edge.

Things might be different when the Dragons visit Northampton next week because, as in the Heineken Cup, home advantage will play a big part. But the Dragons have proved how inhospitable Rodney Parade can be no matter how big the visitors.

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