NEWPORT Gwent Dragons director of rugby Lyn Jones believes the title as Wales' leading region is up for grabs.
The Rodney Parade side have never finished above all of their regional rivals in the Celtic League table and have brought up the rear in eight of 11 seasons.
But they head into Saturday's Guinness Pro12 opener against Connacht in high spirits after summer recruitment of seasoned campaigners to supplement their young talent and a morale-boosting pre-season win against English champions Northampton.
The bookies might not fancy the Dragons' chances as finishing as Wales' best – they are 16/1 long shots – but Jones predicts a tight tussle.
Jones said: "In the Celtic League there's one side from Scotland that's very strong (Glasgow), three from Ireland (Leinster, Ulster and Munster) and all the Welsh regions are nip and tuck, so there's lots to play for.
"The Ospreys have been the leading light in Welsh rugby for too long; they need to be challenged and it's up to us, Cardiff Blues and the Scarlets to pick it up and surpass them.
"I think that the Blues have signed well, (new head coach) Wayne Pivac will give the Scarlets an edge and has a huge reputation in New Zealand while the Ospreys have always had high standards."
It promises to be a challenging year for the quartet and the deal between Regional Rugby Wales and the Welsh Rugby Union has come too late for them to be considered as challengers to 2013/14 semi-finalists Leinster, Ulster, Glasow and Munster.
But the regions will all be eyeing qualification for the European Rugby Champions Cup and Jones believes squad depth will be the deciding factor.
"It's difficult to see who will finish where but the key to it all is injuries," he said. "If you've got your best players on the field for most of the season you are going to do well.
"The squad is the key because everybody will get injured from time to time but the people coming in need to be of equal ability and hungry."
Wales' best region: Ospreys – seven times (04/05, 06/07, 08/09, 09/10, 10/11, 11/12, 13/14), Scarlets – twice (03/04, 12/13), Cardiff Blues – twice (05/06, 07/08), Newport Gwent Dragons – never