ABERAVON 58 points NEATH 18 points
Aberavon went top of the Premiership after a second-half Neath collapse in front of a healthy derby crowd at the Talbot Athletic Ground.
The England cricket team this winter would have been proud of this spectacular crash and things started going wrong for Neath when they lost key back-rower Leon Ward minutes before the game with a knee injury in the warm-up.
But there was little sign of what was to come during a first-half in which Aberavon had plenty of possession but could not get away from Neath whose scrum and line-out advantage ensured that they remained well in the game at 20-18.
Full back Ed Howley boomed Neath into the lead with a penalty from half-way but home outside-half James Garland levelled before Neath regained the edge when Gavin Evans freed co-centre Keiran Williams who outpaced the Avon defence and dashed to the line.
Aberavon soon levelled when centre Joe Thomas beat a Neath defender for their first try before Howley put Neath back in front with his second penalty.
But Aberavon then nudged ahead when full back Joe Gage took full advantage of another weak tackle to score at the posts, Garland converting and winger Steff Andrews grabbed Aberavon’s third. As the interval approached and with home scrum-half Flynn binned, Neath hit back with their second try by scrum-half Chris Morgans and Howley’s conversion brought it back to 18-20 at half-time.
Neath spurned three great opportunities to make an impression at the start of the second-half but an over-thrown line-out and then a penalty to touch which instead went over the dead-ball line cost them dear; and then a fast-moving driving maul ended in a Neath knock-on as the try-line beckoned and Neath’s chance was gone.
Thereafter, it was one-way traffic as Aberavon started to control play with some style. Prop Alex Jeffries barged over and left Neath’s back-row resources in ruins as flanker Calum Davies was concussed in the process. His score opened up the lead and, with Neath in disarray, Andrews soon added his second, Garland converting to put Aberavon in charge.
Skipper Jordan Collier did his best to inspire his team by example and led a couple of charges out of defence but Neath were firmly under the cosh and Garland made the game completely safe when he kicked a penalty. A Keiran Williams breakout promised briefly for Neath but Aberavon got a penalty which led to a Chris Davies try, Garland converting, before Neath – still trying to play – threatened a score at the other end. But it was not their day and Aberavon finished off with a penalty try and a hat-trick score from Andrews, replacement Steff Williams converting both to wrap up an emphatic home win.
And Aberavon did it despite excellent referee Dan Jones having sent Tomalin-Reeves to the bin – but perhaps that was the measure of Aberavon’s determination to defend at all costs when the occasion demanded as compared to Neath’s irresolute defence which was found sadly lacking again.
Well as Aberavon played in the second-half, certain Neath players need, in coach-speak, to spend the few days ahead of the Carmarthen Quins game “looking in the mirror” – more New Year’s resolution is demanded and “can do better, must do better” is the message !
The big Boxing Day derby is at the Talbot Athletic Ground this year when Neath RFC visit Aberavon in the Principality Premiership (kick off 2.30pm).
Neath enter the game on the back of three non-League wins against Cardiff (twice) and Maesteg. Coach Gareth Llewellyn misses the game due to a ski-ing holiday but he has full confidence in his squad’s ability to perform saying :
“Coaches can take things so far but ultimately it is always down to the players who take the field to demonstrate the pride and passion in front of what will be a big holiday crowd.
“We have made big strides this season – especially at the set-pieces. Selection was by no means easy for this game as everybody wants to play and lots of players put their hands up in the run-in to Christmas.
“We will be positive and try to play with control and discipline as usual as these games often come down to key decisions.”
Neath v Aberavon (Away)
15 Ed Howley; 14 Matthew Pearce, 13 Gavin Evans, 12 Keiran Williams, 11 Aaron Grabham; 10 Dan Guarneri, 9 Chris Morgans; 1 Ben Uphill, 2 Aled Morris, 3 Ryan Thomas; 4 Jon Barley, 5 Jonny Griffiths; 6 Jordan Collier (captain), 8 Leon Ward, 7 Calum Davies
Replacements –16 Sion Crocker, 17 Neil White, 18 Geraint James, 19 Rhys Jones, 20 Charlie Davies, 21 Josh Guy, 22 Iwan Evans, 23 Rory Morgan-Williams