NEATH 17 ABERAVON 18
Two missed penalties in the dying minutes cost Neath what would have been a remarkable victory over Aberavon at The Gnoll on Friday evening.
Just like the Boxing Day derby, it was a real “tale of two halves” as this time the Blacks battled back in an attempt to over-turn a 15-point deficit – and they nearly did it – but in the end they fell just short which somehow summed up their ill-luck this season.
For the first try though, Neath were architects of their own downfall as, in the opening exchanges, they gifted Aberavon possession with one of those high-risk dinks which rarely bring profit – if attempted, the ball must be regathered or the first tackle made; if not, calamity – and Aberavon fully capitalised upon it, a great run by Pearce ending with centre Joe Thomas rewarded for his splendid support work 70 metres up-field.
The opening try was not converted but Aberavon extended their lead as full back Chris Banfield landed two penalties – the second one puzzlingly reversed on a distant touch-judge’s advice and which would ultimately cost Neath dear. Winger Jay Baker and Thomas were impressive attackers for Aberavon and needed constant attention from the home tacklers led by flankers Jordan Collier and Elis Hopkins and the visitors were firmly in control against a Neath side which strangely failed to get out of first gear.
It was no surprise when Aberavon went further ahead as the veteran former Neath lock Ben Davies ploughed over for a second try. Banfield added the conversion to make it 18-0 and Neath, already with 10 of their 32 registered players out of action and no academy presence again, were really up against it as they lost Mike Evans, Ryan Thomas and Matthew Pearce to injury. But they flourished briefly and were rewarded for their efforts with a penalty by full back Ed Howley and they showed grim resolution to repel further Aberavon attacks before the interval which was reached at 3-18.
Whatever the two Pauls (coaches Williams and James) said at half-time had the desired effect because Neath came out looking a proper team in the second half. With Scott Gibson’s pace employed wide out as a replacement for Evans, Chris Morgans had taken over at scrum-half and he asserted himself with Neath’s first try five minutes into the second half. The impressive Howley’s conversion made it 10-18 and it was game on.
For, just as Aberavon dominated the first half, so Neath controlled the second as the home forwards really took the game to their opponents, pinching several line-outs against the throw and wearing down the visitors’ pack in the scrums. Play was almost entirely in the Aberavon half and, with five minutes remaining of normal time, Neath’s sustained pressure at last bore fruit when the Blacks were awarded a penalty try against a back-pedalling Aberavon scrum – 17-18 and the game was now in the balance.
Neath kept up the challenge to the end and desperate Aberavon conceded two penalties but both were just out of range on the night and Aberavon’s collective sigh of relief was palpable as they escaped with the win which owed itself to their first-half effectiveness.
NEATH – E.Howley; M.Evans (C.Morgans), I.Evans, M.Pearce (R.Pugh), J.Roberts; L.Scully, S.Gibson; L.Tobias (B.Uphill), S.Crocker (A.Morris), R.Thomas (G.James); M.Davies (S.Hicks), J.Barley; J.Collier (capt), L.Ward, E.Hopkins (C.White)
ABERAVON – C.Banfield; J.Baker, J.Thomas, W.Price, S.Pearce (F.Jones); L.Popham (J.Gage), D.Pritchard (I.Temblett); R.Jenkins, L.Davies (I.Davies), R.Forse; B.Thomas, B.Davies (B.Jones); L.Purnell (capt), J.Blackmore, R.Dudley-Jones (L.Joseph)
Referee – Mr. S.Mills (New Dock Stars)
Neath play near-neighbours Aberavon in their final home game of the Premiership season on Friday (kick off 7.30pm).
Having been edged out by Llandovery 32-40 last time out, the Blacks are looking to finish the season with a win and Sion Crocker, Matthew Davies and Elis Hopkins are all included in the starting line-up.
Neath v Aberavon (Home)
15 Ed Howley; 14 Mike Evans, 13 Iwan Evans, 12 Matthew Pearce, 11 James Roberts; 10 Luke Scully, 9 Scott Gibson; 1 Liam Tobias, 2 Sion Crocker, 3 Ryan Thomas; 4 Matthew Davies, 5 Jon Barley; 6 Jordan Collier (captain), 8 Leon Ward, 7 Elis Hopkins
Replacements – 16 Ben Uphill, 17 Aled Morris, 18 Geraint James, 19 Scott Hicks, 20 Ceri White, 21 Chris Morgans, 22 Dan Guarneri, 23 Ryan Pugh