NEATH 41 points ABERAVON 36 points
In picture-perfect conditions at The Gnoll, Neath and Aberavon served up a wonderful exhibition of exciting, spectator-grabbing rugby in this non-league fixture – don’t call it a friendly because that is one “f”-word not to be used and on times it was not !
Neither side was at full strength but the two teams displayed outstanding attacking intent and the game was played at 100 miles per hour over the full 80 minutes, the ball in play time hitting staggering proportions and it ended with a win for Neath in a dramatic finish on an amazing try-count of 7 to 6.
Neath opened the scoring with a try after two minutes by hard-running winger Alec Jenkins which Dan Guarneri converted from wide out. Aberavon levelled through a splendid try by the in-form Matthew Jenkins which Steff Williams converted before Neath forced two line-outs five metres from the Aberavon line which came to nothing.
Thereafter, the first-half belonged firmly to Aberavon whose alertness, confidence and cleverly-coached angles of running showed just why they topped the Premiership at the “split”. Dogged Neath defence kept them at bay before a loose kick offered possession to the visitors who counter-attacked from deep and Lee Purnell, supporting like the good flanker he is, got their second try after a slick movement.
Steff Williams converted and then the outside-half whose forte is unlocking defences added the extras to a virtuoso try of his own. As half-time approached, Neath’s Guarneri was on his way to a try under the posts only to be recalled for an off-side offence; Aberavon took the penalty quickly, the Neath defence did not marshal itself and flying wing Matthew Jenkins went over at the other end for his second try which made it 26-7 at half-time.
Neath had to get the first post-interval score and they opened the second-half every bit as brightly as they had the first. Five minutes in, outside-half Guarneri cross-kicked accurately into the waiting arms of winger Aaron Grabham who outstripped the Avon defence on a 50-metre run for his 20th try of the season.
As if in brief tribute to the history of this fixture, this signalled a flurry of fisticuffs and soon afterwards the lively Steff Williams sped away for his second try so, with half an hour remaining, there was still no sign of anything but a comfortable Aberavon win.
But two minutes later, Leon Ward – who had just arrived as a replacement for lock Lyndon Bateman – took a hand and he pulled back a try which Guarneri converted. Neath were now playing with a hint of fury and, when Ward cast off Joe Tomalin-Reeves with a monster hand-off, the ball was transferred to skipper Jordan Collier who shrugged off defenders on a 50-metre dash to the line for the next try.
The Neath forwards were on top in the final quarter, stealing line-outs to complement a strong scrummage which once had Avon reversing rapidly over 15 metres. Midway through the half, Ward was again involved when Neath ran the ball from their 22, Guarneri freeing centre Rory Morgan-Williams whose run took play up-field where possession was recycled and Guarneri’s well-judged cross-kick was capitalised upon by Alec Jenkins for his second try as referee Gareth Newman, quite correctly, and not for the last time over-ruled an optimistic Aberavon touch-judge. The conversion was missed but suddenly Neath were back in it at 29-31.
Amidst a flurry of replacements, Aberavon introduced wing Kain Teear-Bourge who nipped in for the visitors’ sixth try and that seemed to be curtains for Neath. But Aberavon promptly dropped the kick-off and Neath, moving the ball through hands with aplomb, created the overlap for teenager Tom Sadler and the Dulais Valley Youth player squeezed in at the corner for Neath’s sixth try – his first in the All Black shirt.
With Guarneri off the field, Alec Jenkins took the conversion and, although he struck it well, his attempt faded away and Neath trailed 34-36. In a grandstand finish, the Neath youngsters attacked again and replacement scrum-half Josh Guy went over for what was the 13th and winning try of a truly remarkable game.
Jenkins’ superb conversion capped an incredible comeback and there was barely time for the re-start before the final whistle was sounded by referee Gareth Newman who deserves a lot of praise for his sensible handling of a captivating game.
In a game like this with the emphasis on attacking running, it is easy to overlook the contribution of the forwards. Both eights worked hard and Aberavon’s Ben Davies, Purnell and Tomalin-Reeves regularly caught the eye. Equally as prominent for Neath were Geraint James, Charlie Davies and Aled Morris.
Unlikely as Neath’s win seemed for much of the game, victory was ultimately achieved and their enterprising handling should give the All Blacks huge encouragement as they head into next Saturday’s “High Noon” encounter with Newport at The Gnoll.
Error reduction is still a must but, after that dreadful defeat at Bridgend a week earlier, the second-half in particular was a transformation and Neath’s never-say-die attitude was as refreshing as it was necessary in a game which will live long in the memory.
Had this game been played under the guise of Southern Hemisphere “super” rugby, the critics would have been purring – for those who were not there, these teams are worth watching !
Neath host near-neighbours Aberavon at The Gnoll on Saturday (kick off 2.30pm).
The Welsh All Blacks’ side is almost completely different from that which lost at Bridgend last week and Neath have injury concerns ahead of next week’s key match with Newport.
The home side are also without centre Keiran Williams and scrum-half Reuben Morgan-Williams who are on Wales Under-20’s duty against Ireland on Saturday evening.
Hooker Ifan Phillips returns after a spell with the Ospreys so Aled Morris reverts once again to the back row.
Neath v Aberavon (Home)
15 Gareth Morris; 14 Aaron Grabham, 13 Rory Morgan-Williams, 12 Iwan Evans, 11 Alec Jenkins; 10 Dan Guarneri, 9 Chris Morgans; 1 Ben Uphill, 2 Ifan Phillips, 3 Geraint James; 4 Rhys Jones, 5 Lyndon Bateman; 6 Aled Morris, 8 Charlie Davies, 7 Jordan Collier (captain)
Replacements – 16 Sion Crocker, 17 Callum Jones, 18 Leon Ward, 19 Joe Williams, 20 Tom Sadler, 21 Josh Guy, 22 Max Llewellyn, 23 A.N. Other
Referee – Mr. Gareth Newman (Cardiff)