AFTER almost six months of inactivity the Dragons will return to action and try to protect just over five months of work.

The region head back to training next week to prepare for a pair of derby clashes at the end of August and the knockout stages of the European Challenge Cup in mid-September.

It doesn't feel like it is a continuation of 2019/20 and it certainly won't feel like a conclusion to the Guinness PRO14 for those teams that have no chance of the play-offs.

The bizarre situation means that the Dragons' two fixtures, not yet confirmed but the Ospreys away and then Scarlets at home, are probably going to feel more like pre-season friendlies than intense showdowns against near rivals.

Sunday's Merseyside derby in the Premier League showed how unsatisfying sport is without a crowd (wags can save their quips about Dragons attendances) but that's the way it has to be.

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Rodney Parade was rocking over the festive period when the Scarlets and then Ospreys were downed but defensive calls for line speed and the thud of boot on ball will echo around the famous ground on August 29.

You simply cannot expect individuals to come flying out of the traps on restart weekend after what they have gone through, or more pertinently what they have not gone through, since mid-March.

The conditioning staff have been doing their best and will try their best to ensure players are tuned up for a safe return.

But August 22 will soon be upon us and it would be wise, and perhaps even necessary, to use that date as part of the gradual process back to full fitness rather than the end point to be at peak power.

Last year the Dragons had six weeks between their win against the Scarlets at Judgement Day to their first day back at the Ystrad Mynach training base on June 10.

Players will have been trying their best to keep in shape but getting guidance from the S&C team on Zoom while grafting in the garden or garage is no substitute for the real thing.

"We need enough preparation time to get these players into shape or they are just going to fall down like a pack of cards," warned Newcastle boss Steve Bruce before the Premier League returned.

Football has returned with an increased allowance for substitutions to protect player welfare and rugby bosses will have to be even more proactive with their use of the bench.

August will be odd and yet the Dragons need to finish the job after an encouraging first season under Dean Ryan; it won't feel like 2019/20 but it is.

Euro qualification is already settled – and the Dragons will be in the premier tournament for the first time since 2011 as long as plans to expand it to 24 teams for a season are rubber-stamped – but there is still a job to do for Ryan's squad.

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The director of rugby has constantly stressed since arriving at Rodney Parade that he can't be obsessed by results and league tables.

He might be keen to see the bigger picture but the Dragons put themselves within touching distance of something that rarely happens – looking down on a Welsh region.

They have a seven-point lead over the Ospreys, so that return-to-play game on August 22 will either seal the deal or leave them needing something from their meeting with the Scarlets at a deserted Rodney Parade.

The situation will add a smidgen of tension to a strange fortnight to finish what has been a solid first campaign under Ryan.

The four-year away hoodoo was ended at Zebre as one of five wins from 13 league games while knockout rugby was earned in Europe.

We saw the emergence of Taine Basham and revival of Leon Brown. Sam Davies settled nicely and Ross Moriarty looked happy and played his rugby since arriving from Gloucester.

The Dragons took encouraging steps under their new boss and foundations have been laid.

Ryan's plans for 2020/21 won't be shaped at all by 160 minutes in August but it would still be a kick in the teeth if, 48 weeks after starting against Munster in Limerick, they were condemned to once again being Wales' worst courtesy of two bolted-on games.