The Dragons have long been the runts of the Welsh regional litter, just looking to survive rather than thrive, but under their chairman, David Buttress, who joined last September, they have developed a taste for ambition. As well as signing two Lions in Ross Moriarty and Richard Hibbard, they have spoken to a third, George North, as part of a 10-year plan to get them dining at European rugby’s top table.
If this sounds far-fetched given the Dragons have wallowed in the depths of the Pro 14 for most of their 15-year existence, Buttress cites the example of Exeter, who meticulously plotted their rise from the Championship and left nothing to chance.
“I am a big fan of what Exeter have done but the best organisations have an authenticity to them,” said Buttress, a co-founder of Just Eat who started the business in his basement London flat, turned over £36 in the first month and stood down as chief executive last year when the company had a market capitalisation of £5bn. “I want us to be the best we can be: Exeter set a long-term plan and achieved it. When there were bumps in the road, they remained focused. As a board, we have a clear idea of where we want to take this region.
“Success does not come overnight. At Just Eat, it took years of 70-hour weeks and 50-week years and it is going to take 10 years at the Dragons. We will be in a much better place in two and competitive on the pitch in three. After five, I would hope that we are the most competitive and respected region in Wales. Beyond that, there is Europe and by that time the aim is to be investing money we have generated through revenue.”
Gwent is Welsh rugby’s most densely populated district with 73 member clubs of the Welsh Rugby Union. Rivalries are fierce and when the regions were established in 2003, the initial partnership between Newport and Ebbw Vale, who formed the Dragons, did not last long. The side became known as Newport Gwent Dragons and was seen by many as an extension of Newport RFC, the then-owners of Rodney Parade.
Buttress grew up supporting Pontypool but always identified with the Dragons. “My grandfather was treasurer of Pontypool for years,” he said. “The other side of the family followed Newport – my father lives only a few metres from Rodney Parade and has been a Newport County season ticket holder for 60 years. As a Pontypool fan I always identified with the Dragons because they represent the elite end of the game in Gwent.
“I do not get emotional about the name (which at the start of the season was changed to Dragons). What is relevant to me is that it is my home, the players largely grew up where I did and they are the best of our area. I have a clear affinity with them. The onus is on us to make sure everyone in the area feels that same affinity. We are building a team they can be proud of and trying to create success. The catchment area is the whole of Gwent, not part of it. I accept that, historically, that has not been done well in regional rugby; I would say that here it was pretty poor.
“I love the tribalism in our game, which is nothing to be embarrassed about. You want that emotion, but it has to be harnessed in the right way.”