NEATH 20 points CARDIFF 19 points
Things are beginning to stir again at The Gnoll where Neath gained a well-deserved, if narrow, win over Cardiff on Saturday.
After competing hard against Bedwas and Ebbw Vale in the last fortnight, it was Neath’s turn to win a close one as they edged an entertaining encounter. In front of a good crowd, the two teams seemed well matched from the outset; tight defensive lines were the order of the day and it was Neath who took the lead when wing Aaron Grabham pounced for an interception try.
Cardiff levelled when outside-half Gareth Thompson shot over for a neat try but Neath were beginning to assert their authority through their stronger scrum and much good work by the back row. Flanker Leon Ward was always in the thick of things and his strong charge brought Neath’s next reward – although halted, Cardiff clearly infringed right in the shadow of their posts but four probable points were saved as outside-half Iwan Evans landed the penalty to make it 8-5.
Cardiff obligingly put the re-start out on the full and the visitors were finding it difficult to get going against a fighting Neath side who eagerly contested everything. The Neath pack were on top, ruining the Cardiff heel and, with locks Jonny Griffiths and Jon Barley alert to steal Cardiff throw-ins, the home team saw more of the ball and it was no surprise when a piercing break by wing Ed Howley led to a try on the opposite flank for Grabham – his second of the afternoon.
Neath’s 13-5 half-time lead was little more than they deserved but Cardiff were always a threat and they struck first after the interval with a fine try by powerful wing James Beal although Neath will not have been happy with their defence. Thompson’s conversion made it 13-12 and the game was back in the balance.
But Neath themselves were in determined mood and, with captain Jordan Collier leading from the front and setting a tremendous example, the forwards grafted hard and polished centre Gavin Evans thoroughly enjoyed leading Neath attacks against his old club. The Blacks powered back onto the offensive for side-stepping full back Dan Guarneri to ghost over at the posts for their third try which he converted himself to make it 20-12.
With hard-pressed Cardiff conceding penalties, Neath were hunting a bonus-point but the game briefly took on the guise of a behind closed doors UKIP meeting as Italian referee Mr. Tomo sent Neath No.8 Calum Davies to the bin following a brief burst of pugilism amongst the forwards and he was followed by Cardiff scrum-half Mike Hale who had a penalty over-turned for some silly footwork.
The disruption seemed to affect Neath more as Thompson exploited the extra freedom to squirt over from a midfield scrum and his conversion brought it back to 20-19. This set up a tense finish but Neath were not to be denied as they stole three Cardiff line-outs and eventually replacement hooker Ifan Phillips led a Neath breakout to safety and the final whistle.
The Neath team received a tremendous ovation at the end – it has been some time since so many stayed behind to cheer their heroes to the dressing-room. And the home side fully deserved the applause for, despite recent bad luck, the young Neath side has shown its emerging character.
Coach Gareth Llewellyn was naturally delighted. He hailed the team’s growing scrum and line-out competitiveness and said, “It was good for all the Former Players here to see us win. We are beginning to put into play what we practice. We are getting better every game but there is still room for improvement and we must keep advancing when we play Bridgend on Wednesday.”
** That game is at The Gnoll and will kick off at 7.30pm – Neath supporters are reminded that season-tickets ARE valid and supporters of both clubs can collect discount vouchers for next Saturday’s Osprey’s Premiership-London Irish game.
Neath entertain Cardiff at The Gnoll (kick off 2.30pm) and captain Jordan Collier believes his side has turned the corner after two closely-fought games against the “best of Gwent” in Bedwas and champions Ebbw Vale but he warns, “We must now back up performance with results.”
“Apart from the game at Cross Keys, we have been highly competitive and anyone who has seen us will know we are due a little luck,” says the back-rower who is one of Neath’s youngest-ever captains.
Neath coach Gareth Llewellyn said, “We got bonus points against both Bedwas and Ebbw Vale but we should have got more. Both clubs acknowledged that we are much improved but that is not enough for us. The side is playing with plenty of spirit, speed and skill and the results will come. Cardiff will pose a different challenge and we expect a quick start from them after they lost to Swansea last week.”
Due primarily to BIC considerations, there are six changes in the Neath line-up with Matthew Pearce, Iwan Evans and Chris Morgans returning behind the scrum and Sion Crocker, Jonny Griffiths and Calum Davies up front.
* Neath Former Players hold their annual buffet prior to the game from 1.00pm.
Neath v Cardiff (Home)
15 Dan Guarneri; 14 Aaron Grabham, 13 Gavin Evans, 12 Matthew Pearce, 11 Ed Howley; 10 Iwan Evans, 9 Chris Morgans; 1 Ben Uphill, 2 Sion Crocker, 3 Geraint James; 4 Jonny Griffiths, 5 Jon Barley; 6 Leon Ward, 8 Calum Davies, 7 Jordan Collier (captain)
Replacements – 16 Callum Jones, 17 Ifan Phillips, 18 Ryan Thomas, 19 Rhys Jones, 20 Aled Morris, 21 Josh Guy, 22 Rory Morgan-Williams, 23 Gareth Morris