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Willis out to change the 'fourth' protocol.

Byline: simon roberts

TOM Willis is determined to change the perception that the Dragons are Wales' perennial 'fourth region' this season.

The Dragons skipper and former All Black, who is in his second campaign at Rodney Parade, make no bones about the challenge for his side during this campaign.

The goal isn't to win the Magners League, let alone the Heineken Cup, but is to prove the Men of Gwent aren't the runt of the litter.

It is imperative the Dragons do that this season because the fourth-placed Welsh side in the Magners League will be consigned to the European Challenge Cup next term.

The safety-net of a Heineken Cup play-off game against an Italian side is no longer there.

Willis, a proud rugby man if ever there was one, knows the Dragons season is in danger of turning into 'Groundhog Day' every year.

He has been around long enough to know he has a battle on his hands to stop the Dragons moving in an ever-decreasing circle.

"It is irritating that we are always thought of as the fourth region," said Willis "But we are the ones who can change that by what we do on the field.

"We did finish fourth out of the Welsh teams last season but that was only by a fine margin.

"We know the consequences are much harder on us this season because if you are the fourth Welsh team in the Magners you won't be in the Heineken Cup.

"Everybody knows that the Dragons, and the ambitions we have for the region prove that, don't want to be the fourth team. We need to be playing in the Heineken Cup and we are all aware of that."

The Dragons may not have the budget or the spending power of most and their desire to balance their books makes complete sense.

But there is no doubt they are being left behind by the other regions with the Scarlets, the Ospreys and the Blues all boasting new stadiums and training facilities.

The Dragons have plans to re-develop Rodney Parade but there is little doubt the potential of Welsh rugby's one 'true' region hasn't come close to being realised.

Paul Turner, the Dragons coach, is out of contract at the end of this season and it's hard to see him still at Rodney Parade next campaign.

But Turner has done a manful job in difficult circumstances and his ability as a Harry Redknapp-style wheeler and dealer has kept the Dragons afloat.

How long he wants to do that for is the question. This season he has drafted in another batch of Kiwis to solidify his squad and that has led his outfit acquiring the moniker, the New Zealand Gwent Dragons, in some quarters.

"To be honest, I don't know what all the fuss is about," said Willis.

"People just have to look at every other region and they have all used their quota for overseas players and we are no different.

"We have all Kiwis, as opposed a mixture of overseas players, but they have been brought in to win games and help to develop the younger Welsh players coming through. "I don't think the Dragons are different to any other team in Europe."

The Kiwi know-how at the Dragons has also been bolstered by the likes of Welsh talent, wing Aled Brew and centre Matthew J Watkins, but scrum-half Danny Lee is being viewed at THE key signing in the East.

The capture of the 33-year-old former All Black scrum-half has been criticised, especially with young Welsh scrum-half Tom Isaacs having left the region to join the Ospreys.

Willis, though, is confident that Lee's experience will be vital for the Dragons this season.

"We want to be a better team than we were last year," said Willis.

"That is individually and as a team.

"If we can deliver that the results will look after themselves and we should move up the table.

"We definitely have a different look about us, especially at forward, and we have some great depth.

"We are a bit light in other areas but the overall strength-in-depth of our squad has improved for the new season.

"I expect us to be a more diligent around the park and more leadership from our half-backs.

"I think the signing of Danny Lee will have a significant im-pact for us on the field. His leadership skills will be important to us.

"I have played alongside him before and I know he is proud individual and will want to show what he can do for the Dragons."

Willis epitomised the hard-nosed work-ethic and uncompromising and direct approach of the Dragons.

What they lacked in flair, they made up with sheer bloody-minded commitment to the cause.

The Men of Gwent did suffer a 50-point thumping in Munster at the start of last season but they stabilised the ship and left their mark on every side they played last season.

They may lack a genuine marquee-signing or an X-factor player, but one area has already been identified as a weakness last season.

The Dragons, who had three possible fly-halves, never selected the same No 10 in consecutive games all season. The likes of Shaun Connor, James Arlidge and Jason Tovey never made the fly-half role their own and that has to change this season.

If that happens, Willis is confident that the Dragons will be a very different proposition this season.

"We do want to put a bit more width on our game and be more ambitious," said Willis "I do want us to play what we see in front of us more "We did that a bit last season but we do need to play rugby with pace and tempo.

"I do think we are a team growing every season and we are learning what we have to do against certain teams we play."

DRAGONS Game by Coach: Paul Turner Captain: Tom Willis Last season Magners League: 9th Heineken Cup: Pool stages Anglo-Welsh Cup: Pool stages Major ins: Danny Lee, Robert Sidoli, Gavin Thomas Major outs: Adam Black, Kevin Morgan, Richard Parks, Jamie Ringer, Tal Selley, Marc Stcherbina, Rhys Thomas, Andy Williams, Gareth Wyatt. game Sun 06 Sep 2009 2.05pm (ML): Dragons v Ulster, Rodney Parade Sat 12 Sep 7pm (ML): Leinster v Dragons, Royal Dublin Society Fri 18 Sep 7.30pm (ML): Dragons v Glasgow Warriors, Rodney Parade Sun 27 Sep 5.05pm (ML): Munster v Dragons, Musgrave Park Sat 03 Oct 4.30pm (ML): Dragons v Connacht, Rodney Parade Fri 09 Oct 8pm (HC): Gloucester Rugby v Dragons, Kingsholm Fri 16 Oct 7.30pm (HC): Dragons v Glasgow Warriors, Rodney Parade Fri 23 Oct 7.05pm (ML): Key player: Luke Charteris. The giant lock has really started to earn himself a real reputation as a top-quality second row. Superb in the lineout, but his work ethic around the field is unbelievable.

Player to watch: Aled Brew. The hard-running wing is back at Rodney Parade and will be keen to resurrect his Test career. A handful on his day and the Dragons will be looking to get the ball in his hands as often as possible.

Strengths: The Dragons 'Us against the world' attitude and incredible work ethic for each other has kept them afloat and they will need it again. The Dragons pack looks impressive and will take lumps out of the opposition and scrum-half Danny Lee is being talked about at the 'general' needed to guide the side from half-back.

Weaknesses: The 'Men of Gwent' represents the only true region, but doesn't have a region to support it. A small squad is another major handicap, but the Dragons need a major injection of new ideas, ambition and money to become what should be a powerhouse of Welsh rugby. The coaches and players are doing there bit, but it's time the region's powerbrokers did the same.

What you will hear at Rodney Parade this season: "We need Tony Brown to come back and take over the Dragons."

What you won't hear at Rodney Parade this season: "Richie McCaw is in talks to join the Dragons next season." Scarlets v Dragons, Parc y Scarlets Sun 01 Nov 5.05pm (ML): Edinburgh v Dragons, Murrayfield Fri 06 Nov 7.30pm (AWC): Dragons v Sale Sharks, Rodney Parade Sat 14 Nov 3pm (AWC): Leicester Tigers v Dragons, Welford Road Sun 06 Dec 5.05pm (ML): Dragons v Leinster, Rodney Parade Sun 13 Dec 1.45pm (HC): Biarritz Olympique v Dragons, Parc des Sports Aguilera Fri 18 Dec 8pm (HC): Dragons v Biarritz Olympique, Rodney Parade Sun 27 Dec 6pm (ML): Blues v Dragons, Cardiff City Stadium Thur 31 Dec 2.05pm (ML): Dragons v Scarlets, Rodney Parade Dates still to be allocated for remainder of season.

KEY PLAYER: Luke Charteris Verdict Magners League: 9th. The Dragons will have the Scarlets in their sights and will be desperate to qualify for next season's tournament, but already look like being the fourth Welsh region once again. Heineken Cup: Pool stages. They'll be direct and confrontational and will leave mark on every side , but lack X-factor to do anything in Europe.


EXPERIENCED: New recruit Danny Lee AMBITION: Skipper Tom Willis says his Dragons side need to be playing in the Heineken Cup
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Sep 3, 2009
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