Neath fell to another agonising defeat away to Bridgend, as a last minute try sunk the Welsh All Blacks. In an important fixture for both sides it was Bridgend who came away with the honours and the points, as the bottom two Premiership sides fought it out in an error strewn encounter at the Brewery Field.
Neath, looking for their first league win of the season, came into the match on the back of a good victory in the Swalec Cup against Cardiff Met. In good playing conditions it was the home team who got off to the better start, with the Ravens wing Mike Powell finding space on the outside of a narrow Neath defence. Powell, who scored a brace last weekend for Bridgend in the cup, showed good speed to break downfield and it was only a good covering tackle from Alec Jenkins on the Neath wing, five metres from his own line, that stopped an early try for the hosts. Ominous signs for the Men in Black.
It wasn’t long before Neath were on the backfoot again. Outside half Luke Price was caught offside and Bridgend sent the resulting penalty into the corner, looking to capitalise on their early pressure. Eventually the strain told, and Ravens hooker Iestyn Merriman burrowed his way over from only a metre out. The extras were added by outside half Joseph Scrivens, and Bridgend took an 8-0 lead inside the first quarter of an hour.
The score looked as though it would spark Neath into action, and the Blacks begun to string some phases together, moving the ball well and bringing a powerful back row into play. Calum Davies worked hard at No.8, off the back of a retreating scrum, to provide some much needed momentum and some strong carrying through the middle from returning captain Nicky Downs forced Neath into the Bridgend half for the first time. After a clever grubber by outside half Price, well gathered by centre Cameron Morris, Neath looked to have an overlap out wide but some sloppy handling inside the 22’ saw the chance slip away, leaving the coaching staff visibly frustrated.
The Ravens’ scrum looked powerful and it proved a good weapon in the first half, with penalties pinning Neath inside their own territory. After a loose ball was gathered well by Bridgend’s Gareth Beer, the home team looked set to score their second try as they scorched downfield. It took strong work by Neath centre Iwan Evans to hold the man up and force the turnover 5 metres out that kept the visitors in the game. 8-0 at the end of an error strewn first half with Neath making too many mistakes with ball in hand to challenge the Bridgend line.
After the break and with rain drifting in across the Brewery field, it was Neath who looked to mix things up, making three early substitutions, notably Aaron Coundley coming on in the front row. There was a renewed vigour about the Men in Black and they began to press Bridgend with more energy and although the home team looked solid in defence they were undone by a moment of magic. Neath full back Ed Howley, showed lovely footwork and a clean pair of heals to skip his way past three defenders and scamper into the corner to register the away team’s first points of the match. Price slotted the extras from out wide to make it all square at 8 points apiece.
Bridgend were able to claw back the lead as again Neath were caught offside, and Scrivens was able to bisect the uprights from just inside the 22, taking the score to 10-8 with half an hour left to play. However, the referee soon lost his patience with the consistent offending on both sides and dismissed Bridgend replacement back row Matthew John (a.k.a. Phillips) to the sin bin for not releasing. It proved pivotal as once more full back Howley struck.
After some sustained pressure inside the Bridgend half, Neath created an overlap wide on the right, with Howley the unmarked man. The ball came out to fly half Price, who saw the space and floated a delicate chip kick for the full back to run onto. He gathered at a sprint and went tearing in, to score his second and take Neath into a four-point lead.
As the rain continued to fall and with both sides making changes, errors began to creep into the game and each team found themselves with a man in the bin as the referee continued to punish repeated discretions. The penalties began to take their toll on the All Blacks as Bridgend were able to drive them deep into their 22’ inside the final five minutes. A man down in the pack, Neath gave everything to hold firm and tortuously, No. 8 Ashton Evans forced his way over from the back of a well set driving maul.
It was a cruel defeat for a team out to prove they were more than capable of beating a Bridgend side who demonstrated little attacking promise. The players left the field looking dejected and understandably so. There were flashes of quality but it was yet another league defeat for a team who just can’t seem to get over the finishing line.