NEWPORT Gwent Dragons have been handed a pre-season injury blow with back row forward Netani Talei set to be sidelined until the New Year because of a foot injury.
The 31-year-old, who will hope to be a key figure for Fiji at next year's World Cup, underwent foot surgery earlier this month.
Talei signed from Edinburgh last summer and made 20 appearances in his first campaign at Rodney Parade, filling the void when Taulupe Faletau was on international duty.
The powerful number eight/blindside missed the end of the season after injuring his foot against the Ospreys at the Millennium Stadium and he will be targeting a January return after suffering a repeat.
The blow has been cushioned by the summer arrival of 23-times capped Wales international Andy Powell and the region do have a wealth of back row options.
Lewis Evans is comfortable at openside, blindside or number eight, both Andrew Coombs and James Thomas are locks/blindsides and Nic Cudd is an out-and-out seven.
They also boast a trio of Wales Under-20s internationals in Scott Matthews, James Benjamin and Ollie Griffiths while 18-year-old Harri Keddie impressed in the Premiership Rugby 7s.
Meanwhile, director of rugby Lyn Jones hailed Sunday's pre-season friendly against Lydney as a valuable learning experience for the region's young prospects.
An inexperienced Dragons side ran out comfortable 36-0 winners against their hosts from English National Two South thanks to a penalty try and scores by openside Scott Matthews, fly-half Dorian Jones and wing Matthew Pewtner.
"I was really pleased with the performance," said Jones. "Credit to Lydney, they were far better than I expected and they played accurately and made life difficult for us at the breakdown.
"It was another step towards getting prepared for the start of the season and I was delighted with a lot of the young players.
"It's all about planting seeds for the future and these boys are standing up, which is great for the region."
The game was arranged as a favour for Lydney coach Duncan Bell, who was tempted out of retirement by the Dragons last season to help the region out of a propping crisis.
And the 39-year-old former Bath and England tighthead was delighted that his charges gave his old teammates a vigorous workout.
"But at no point did they overrun us and we defended pretty heroically even when we started to get tired. We asked questions of their defence at times," said Bell.
"I had goosebumps when they came off, I was so proud of how well they did. The only thing I'm disappointed with is that we didn't score but we did have opportunities."
The Dragons host Aviva Premiership champions Northampton at Ebbw Vale's Eugene Cross Park on Friday (kick-off 7.30pm).